On Steven Brill, Kids, Teachers, Poverty, and Test Scores

Brill cover My essay on Steven Brill's new book, Class Warfare, is out in this week's Nation. The book is an impressive work in many ways; Brill does a great job at documenting the many financial, political, and personal connections that animate the standards-and-accountability school reform movement. And his thinking on charter schools and Teach for America has become more sophisticated and critical since his famous "rubber room" and "teachers' unions last stand" articles came out in 2009 and 2010.

That said, Class Warfare is filled with the sort of myopic, test-score-obsessed thinking that dominates far too much of the education conversation. I write:

School reform is just as much about the three Cs: curriculum (what knowledge and skills students actually learn); counseling (how we prepare young people, professionally and socially, for adult life); and civics (whether we teach students how to participate in American democracy).

Brill never mentions any of this. Class Warfare is built around the idea of children, particularly poor children, as test-score-producing machines, with little to no attention paid to other aspects of their personalities or lives. The book’s heroes are philanthropists, school administrators, policy wonks and politicians. We meet few students or parents.

Most pernicious is Brill’s repeated claim that the effects of poverty can be not only mitigated but completely beaten back by good teachers. “A snowballing network of education reformers across the country…were producing data about how teaching counted more than anything else,” Brill writes in the book’s opening pages. Later, he devotes a chapter to economists Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, whose work on value-added teacher evaluation has powerfully influenced Bill Gates’s education philanthropy. “It wasn’t that poverty or other factors didn’t affect student performance,” Brill summarizes. “Rather, it was that teacher effectiveness could overcome those disadvantages” (emphasis added).

In fact, the work of the many researchers Brill approvingly cites—including Kane, Staiger and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek—shows that while teaching is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, family and neighborhood characteristics matter more. The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.

It is tiring to make this point over and over again. 

Read the whole thing.

6 thoughts on “On Steven Brill, Kids, Teachers, Poverty, and Test Scores

  1. John Barlowe @ Childswork.com

    Just read the article on The Nation, Dana. Breath of fresh air. You are an extraordinary writer. You convey with clarity how difficult the whole school reform endeavor is. Well done. Be honored to have you guest post on our little blog one day if interested. I’m sure you have ample free time ;-)

  2. Robert Rothman

    I admired the review as well. I have ordered the book and you’ve given me the right kind of skeptical lens with which to read it.

    I certainly agree that poverty matters greatly, but I can’t help wondering about a statistic from last year’s PISA results: the US has by far the highest correlation between economic status and achievement of any of the 60 countries that took part. In other words, poverty matters much more here than it does elsewhere. Why is that?

    Some possible answers come to mind. One is that other nations have stronger social safety nets than the U.S., so poor children are more vulnerable here. Yes, but that doesn’t mean that poor children in other countries are disadvantaged as well. Also, other countries tolerate far less inequality in educational resources–funding and teacher quality–than the U.S. Teachers do matter, but other countries are better at ensuring that those with the greatest needs have additional resources.

    Another reason, which you point out, is that other countries place a greater emphasis on building a system that recruits well-qualified individuals into teaching, trains them well, and provides them with career opportunities to encourage them to stay. Linda Darling-Hammond and I wrote a report on this earlier this year: link to all4ed.org

    I also think that other countries have a clearer idea of what to teach and how to teach than does the U.S. As Dick Elmore has pointed out, U.S. teachers have a peculiar notion that the height of professionalism is shutting the door and making up a program of study on one’s own. No other profession does that, nor do teachers in high-performing countries.

    We may be on the verge of changing that. The common core state standards present a view of instruction that is clear, coherent, and about to be widespread. My hope is that these can contribute to a strengthening of instruction in all schools. (I have a book on the common standards coming out in the fall.)

    Will the standards overcome poverty? Of course not. But they will do more than firing teachers and creating charter schools.

    I’m usually hopeful on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and odd Saturdays, so you caught me on a good day. Keep up the good work.

  3. Dana

    Thanks John and Robert for the kind and thoughtful comments. I agree, of course, that other nations are helped educationally by their more comprehensive approaches to child poverty. Curriculum is certainly a large part of the equation that usually gets ignored in the American ed reform debate. As a society, we are not very comfortable in defining what knowledge and skills we expect our young people to know.

  4. Allison Jarman

    Thank you for writing this assessment. I spent five years in public education and the finger pointing is unbelievable. I worked in affluent schools and schools in poor neighborhoods. I’ve had violent students and privileged students. As soon as Mr. Brill gets his teaching credential and spends five years in the classroom, I will take into account what he has to say. At the end of the day, he is only trying to sell books, not make a difference in the life of a child.

  5. R Stupel

    Yes, it may be discouraging that socioeconomic level has the largest influence on academic success and that clearly our society has decided that mitigating the effects of poverty are not a priority. At the same time, we not only want our own children to succeed, but we want to educate children to be workers, citizens, and productive members of the community. Since we have not been successful at framing the debate, nor in mobilizing parents and others to support broad-based reform that works, we can only start from where we are. The recent Pew poll showed that the public still largely supports teachers (albiet not unions). So let’s capitalize on that and focus on supporting teachers so as to improve education.

    You approvingly mention tying student performance to teacher evaluation, but this needs to be put in the context that any merit-pay plan must be school wide so as to encourage collaboration and promote best practices so that MORE children learn. As you indicate, establishing a clear career path and treating teachers like professionals will make a difference. Provide effective profession­al developmen­t, mentoring and greater autonomy in the classroom while encouraging cross pollination of ideas and practices. Improve working conditions. Honor their successes, promote collaboration and encouragement to hone their skills on an ongoing basis. Provide significant time for reflection, planning, and invention.

    And instead of decrying the narrow focus of the reform movement, let’s work to ensure that use tests for diagnostic purposes to enhance learning, not punish poor performanc­e. And use data to make instructional decisions. We need to counter the climate of fear that the so-called reformers efforts are leading to.

    Leadership matters: provide better training and oversight to principals­, expect accountabi­lity. Promote principals who are committed to building high levels of trust both internally and within the community to improve academic outcomes. First offer support and resources to underperforming principals then replacing those who aren’t effective in establishing a collaborative, rigorous learning community.

    Hire and grant tenure to teachers who are (a) motivated and (b) constantly evaluating their practices and enhancing their effectiveness to promote student learning. For underperforming teachers provide mentoring and support, then deny tenure based on appropriat­e assessment­s that are data informed rather than data-drive­n.

    Focusing on these changes–-rather than deligitimizing the unions–-will help bring better-qualified teachers into the schools, retain top teachers and improve teaching skills across the board. No, it won’t be a panacea, but we can immplement these.

    Ultimately we also need to address the connection between work and school. High school should be engaging and meaningful to all: perhaps this means a strong vocational track where students with weak academics can succeed and have internships, job shadowing, job readiness training and then job placement services upon graduation. They need to see themselves as having a productive place in society even if they haven’t mastered trigonometry, chemistry or literary analysis. Successful apprenticeship programs keep students in school and improve academic performance.

  6. Susan

    It may be simplistic for Mr. Brill to state that the effects of poverty can be overcome by good teachers, but Ms. Goldstein’s critique of Brill’s conclusions is just as simplistic. Her loyalty to the NEA and AFT in her Nation article is obvious.

    I would like to know what she has to say about an Education Week Magazine series entitled “A Trust Betrayed” which suggests that the incidence of sexual abuse by teachers is 100 times greater than the incidence of abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. Institutional cover-up prevailed both in the church and in public schools. The NEA and AFT protect teachers, not students. Thus, the cries from people like Brill for reform.


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