Monday, August 29, 2011


Teachers Get Little Say in a Book About Them

By MICHAEL WINERIP – New York Times |

Warring learning theories: Choose yours

By Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author - Guest blogger in the Washington Post |

August 28, 2011 - Can an education reform movement that demeans and trivializes teachers succeed? It’s hard to imagine, but that is what is going on in parts of America today.

Yana Paskova for The New York Times - Steven Brill, in his Manhattan office last week, weighs in on the education reform movement.


In Steven Brill’s new book celebrating the movement, “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools,” teachers are literally the least of it. Of the three million who work in traditional public schools, three are interviewed by Mr. Brill on the record; their insights take up six of the book’s 437 pages.

Nor do charter school teachers fare much better. At Harlem Success Academy 1, which produces top scores on state tests, Mr. Brill describes how teachers working around the clock continually burn out. Like kitchen appliances, they last a few years and then need to be replaced. One teacher describes being “overwhelmed, underappreciated and underpaid” and tells Mr. Brill, “There is no way I can do this beyond another year or two.”

Mr. Brill has little positive to say about teachers. Veterans “hanging on for 20 or 30 years caring only about their pensions and tenure protection are toxic.” While he admits that there are thousands of teachers who are skilled and highly motivated, “increasingly” there are those who put in an “8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. workday with a civil-service mentality.” (How Mr. Brill could possibly know whether the number of these teachers is increasing is unclear, since he provides no statistics or attribution.)

Until this project, Mr. Brill, 61, had rarely written about education. Nor was he well acquainted with public schools — he graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and sent his three children to private schools.

The book grew from his New Yorker article two years ago about rubber rooms, where the city’s most dysfunctional teachers spent idle days, collecting salaries while waiting months or years for their cases to be resolved. “I see a guy asleep with his head on a desk and alarm clock,” Mr. Brill recalled in an interview. “I see another guy, if he were in a room with my daughter, I’d call the police.”

There were 744 teachers in rubber rooms at the time. For some, that is understandable in a system of 77,000 teachers; to Mr. Brill, it was a prime example of a union more interested in protecting its members than in educating children.

Mr. Brill, a writer (“Teamsters,” 1978), lawyer (Yale ’75) and entrepreneur (founder of Court TV and the American Lawyer publication), knows that every story needs a villain or an evil force. In “Class Warfare,” the problem is not the poverty the children experience, the violence they see in their homes and neighborhoods or the lack of vocabulary that the sons and daughters of adults who did not finish high school often take with them to kindergarten.

The villains of Mr. Brill’s story are bad teachers coddled by unions.

With his legal training and business background, Mr. Brill is expert at chronicling the union’s failings. He documents the growth of the New York City teachers’ contract from 39 pages in 1962 to 200 today, along with work rules that can be used at every turn to obstruct principals from improving schools. He details the case of a Stuyvesant High School teacher who was so drunk that she passed out at her desk, only to have the union claim on its Web site that she was disciplined as part of a scheme to harm senior teachers.

He goes a lot easier on the reformers who have spent recent years pushing the expansion of charter schools and standardized tests. Mr. Brill identifies the millionaires and billionaires who attack the unions and steered the Democratic Party to their cause. There is Whitney Tilson, who parlayed $1 million of his parents’, relatives’ and own money to build a hedge fund that he told Mr. Brill was worth $50 million; Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, who works for the family’s money fund and has homes in Manhattan, East Hampton and the Dominican Republic; and David Einhorn, who at age 38 “was already one of Wall Street’s successful short sellers.”

The book is called “Class Warfare.” I expected Mr. Brill to explore why these men single out the union for blame when children fail. If a substantial part of the problem was poverty and not bad teachers, the question would be why people like them are allowed to make so much when others have so little. I hear this all the time from teachers, but when I asked Mr. Brill, he said, “I didn’t see it as the rich versus the union guys, although now that you say it, I can see how you could draw that line.”

Harlem Success 1 shares a building with a traditional public school, P.S. 149. Mr. Brill presents numbers that show the charter school is far superior: 86 percent of Harlem Success students were proficient in English in 2010, compared with 29 percent of P.S. 149’s. He notes that charters are criticized for having fewer children with learning challenges, but “none of the actual data supports this.”

Actually, it does. According to the city, in 2010 P.S. 149 had more children poor enough to receive free lunch (76 percent vs. 67 percent for the charter); more children for whom English was a second language (13 percent vs. 1.5 for the charter); and more children with disabilities (22 percent vs. 16).

And that is what so scares those of us who see traditional public schools as vital to democracy: that they will become repositories for the poorest, most troubled children.

Reviewers have criticized Mr. Brill for making what seems like a bizarre turnaround in the book’s final chapter. When I asked him about it, he said the two years spent reporting had changed him.

In the book’s first 420 pages, he bashes the union and its president, Randi Weingarten, is dismissive of veteran teachers and extols charters.

Three people seem to have altered that thinking. First, David Levin, a founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, the biggest charter chain in the country, told him that charter schools would never be able to train near the number of quality teachers needed to populate all public schools.

Second, Jessica Reid, an assistant principal at Harlem Success who worked night and day to improve the lives of poor children, burned out right before Mr. Brill’s eyes and quit midyear.

And third, against the odds, he came to like Ms. Weingarten. “She really cares about this stuff,” he told me.

The book ultimately concludes that only the union can supply quality veteran teachers on the scale needed.

At a time when education is so polarized, Mr. Brill seems to have found some middle ground. He even suggested to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that he make Ms. Weingarten New York’s next chancellor to provide the balance necessary for real change.

On Page 426, the mayor responds. “It’s a really stupid idea,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Never in a million years.”


A version of this article appeared in print on August 29, 2011, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Teachers Get Little Say In a Book About Them.

08/29/2011 - The rich philanthropists, hedge fund managers, state governors, big-city mayors, and syndicated columnists now shaping national education policy have reached a firm conclusion. The Number One factor in student performance is teacher performance.

Poverty, broken homes, lead and mercury poisoning, bad teeth, poor eyesight, language difficulties, hunger, low self-esteem, run-down schools, frequent moving, cultural differences, class size — well, yes, those are problems — BUT A TEACHER WHO IS REALLY ON THE BALL CAN LIFT THOSE SCORES!

So fire the worst, and put the rest on notice. Tell them to either get with it or get out. Bring out the market force carrots and sticks — merit pay, school grades, public humiliation, endless checklists, non-stop testing — and goodbye if they don’t work. Competition made America great, so pit kid against kid, teacher against teacher, school against school, state against state, nation against nation!

Keep that great teacher in mind as you read this post I got a few days ago from Dr. William Webb, director of The Center for Educational Options. Bill and his staff operate an alternative school in rural Henry County, Kentucky.

“…the students decided to acquaint themselves in a more mindful way with a small commons area located between our building and the high school. Working in teams of 4, the students were first asked simply to describe the area linguistically. They were mildly surprised to realize that a simple verbal description was not simple at all. The boundary of the area was established beforehand, and yet descriptions varied considerably from group to group. Landmarks that seemed important to one group were virtually ignored by another. Estimates of distance were wildly inaccurate. Words chosen to describe some aspect of the environment were imprecise and vague (“There’s a small hill a little bit behind our trailer that’s pretty steep.”). Listening to each group’s verbal descriptions, no one needed a curriculum or assessment expert to define the “lesson targets.” The important questions were obvious. How do we account for the differences in descriptions? How do we reconcile these differences to come to a shared “perception” of our environment? Why is it important to be precise in describing our surroundings? How do differing perceptions of our immediate surroundings influence the way we interact with each other? A host of other questions were asked and answered in the follow-up discussion to this “simple” exercise…

Moreover, student involvement during this discussion was profoundly different from the typical high school classroom interactions. Freed from the cognitive task of memorizing facts, our students argued and conceded and elaborated and prioritized and paraphrased and deduced and just about every other verb that the Bloom taxonomists say are important illustrators of learning. And they were doing it in the context of an authentic task with real-life implications.

Once the students had settled on a verbal description of the commons area, they were asked to draw a diagram of the area to scale. Not one student had any experience with that exercise. Most were math phobic, having been spectacularly unsuccessful in the math courses taught in the traditional classroom. But having spent the past few days thinking about their environment in a more mindful way, they were motivated to tackle this assignment. Armed with 50’ tape measures, they had little trouble measuring the lines that defined the area’s boundary.

But connecting those lines in a scaled representation of the area presented some challenges. One challenge was the way one adjacent building jutted into the space the students were detailing. In order for the scaled drawing to come out right, the angle that the building “interrupted” the space had to be accurately defined—and it wasn’t an obvious right angle. With no way to use a protractor, the students were stymied. Attempts to use their limited knowledge of geometry to find a mathematical solution were futile. Solutions on the Internet were too technical in their language to be helpful.

And then, in a flash of insight, one student (whose math skills had been assessed by standardized testing measures as being in the lowest “novice” range) ran into the classroom and returned with a block of modeling clay which he proceeded to shape around the building’s corner. Once he had “modeled” the angle in this way, it was a simple matter of transferring the angle to a piece of paper which could now be measured with the protractor. Voila!! The satisfaction this student felt at finding that solution and the affirmation he received from his classmates was a brand new experience. He felt smart. He was smart…

One other example:

As previously mentioned, the students were asked to draw a scaled diagram of the commons area they had chosen to investigate. This, of course, was a ratio and proportions exercise most likely introduced to students in elementary school. But our math-challenged students approached this assignment as if they had been asked to prove the Pythagorean Theorem. A freshman girl (let’s call her Kayla) with a neurotic aversion to all things mathematic, watched quietly while the other three (somewhat mathematically challenged) members of her group struggled to work through the steps for converting their measurements to the scaled drawing. After looking at their measurements and the size of the graph paper they were required to use, they decided that 8 feet of measured distance should be 1 inch on the drawing. There were dozens of measurements—2’9’’, 47’3’’, 9’4’’, etc. The teachers were no help. The students were on their own to figure this out.

Normally, Kayla tuned out when presented with an assignment from a math book, engaging in all manner of avoidance (and class distracting) behaviors. But this was different…a problem, for sure, but not just a math problem. So, Kayla listened differently and she watched as different strategies were tried, and then—she got it! “We gotta make everything inches, and then we have to divide by 96!’’ She showed her group mates. It was a special moment and nearly impossible to describe. Normally a bit histrionic in her actions, Kayla seemed more centered, more authentic, in her excitement and enthusiasm at discovering this hidden skill. She was clearly enjoying feelings of competence that she rarely experienced in the school setting, let alone while doing math. She liked how it felt. She insisted on doing all the conversions herself, working without a break through part of her lunch period to finish…”

If that’s not a dazzling description of real learning taking place, I’ve never read one.

Several years ago, my brother and I wrote an instructional program titled Connections: Investigating Reality. It’s a how-to manual for middle and high school kids and teachers that uses firsthand, “right here, right now,” real-world experience to teach useful, complex ideas, ideas that deal with, but also go beyond, the usual school subjects.

We put Connections on the Internet, allowed it to be downloaded free of charge (no strings attached), and invited users to help us improve it.

Dr. Webb was the first person to take us up on our offer. I asked him to comment about Connections, hoping his account would help explain the radical difference a theory of learning can make. I’ve quoted most of his response. The whole of it is at

In his account, where are the teachers? “The students decided…” “Once the students had settled on…” “The teachers were no help.” “The students were on their own…”

The learning theory that has kids worldwide sitting for hours a day “covering the material” says that what’s taught should be broken apart into easy-to-remember fragments. The fragments should then be sorted by subject, then sorted again, and again, and again, down to a level of specificity that allows each fragment to be an item on a multiple choice test.

This is the learning theory that explains the “standards and accountability” fad. It’s the theory that explains why nearly every state has now adopted the Common Core State Standards. It’s the theory that explains why learner memory looms so large in testing, to the neglect of insight, imagination, and ingenuity. It’s the theory that explains why billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on standardized tests.

Here’s a very different learning theory: The brain LIKES what it finds when the infant it inhabits is born. It LIKES complexity, likes the challenge of exploring raw experience in search of meaningful patterns, regularities, and relationships. In short, the brain likes the process of sense-making.

The first theory can’t explain why little kids learn so much in the first months and years of life, can’t explain Kayla’s sudden interest in learning, can’t explain the other student behavior Bill describes.

The second theory says it’s natural.

The second theory is why people who actually know something about educating believe in old-fashioned free play and old fashioned kindergarten. It’s why they believe in cutting teachers enough slack to let them do what needs doing, and why they cringe or roll their eyes when the new “reformers” preach about the need for “rigor” and for “raising the bar.” It’s why they opposed No Child Left Behind, now oppose Race to the Top, and oppose just about everything else related to education that the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been selling Congress and state legislators for the past twenty years.

The two theories aren’t compatible. There’s a choice to be made. If  H.G. Wells was right, and human history is a race between education and catastrophe, that choice could be the most important one this generation can make.

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