Monday, August 29, 2011

Brill-Ravitch debate

I enjoyed the Ravitch-Brill debate, which aired last night on C-SPAN2 and can be seen in its entirely here:  I was pleased to see that Ravitch's first "question" – in reality, debating point – was about DFER and who are the people behind it.  She tried to differentiate between DFER's source of funding ("Wall St. hedge funds") vs. the unions ("classroom teachers").  Brill's response: in truth, the unions are spending taxpayer money by taking a piece of the money that goes to teachers (who, of course, have no choice in whether to join the union and pay dues, and essentially no voice in how their money is spent).  Ravitch's second point was that Brill wants to eliminate unions, which Brill denied, saying he wants unions to become more reform oriented.  She then said states that do the best on NAEP scores have strong unions, the classic union talking point that utterly confuses causation and correlation. 


Student performance is highly correlated with parental education – and there's obviously causation here.  The states with the highest percentage of adults with college degrees (MA, NY, NJ, etc.) tend to be the east and west coast states which also happen to have strong unions.  Hence, the correlation that Ravitch and the unions refer to, but to argue that strong unions CAUSE high student achievement is ludicrous.  In fairness, however, to argue that unions CAUSE low student achievement is almost as equally ludicrous.  For my further thoughts on unions, which you may find more nuanced than you expect, see pages 96-103 (especially 101-103) of my school reform presentation, which (as always) is posted at:


Here's the text of page 103, which is entitled, "But it's not just the unions."


      Even in states where the unions are weak, the same problems exist and the system is highly resistant to change

      The unions aren't the primary cause, but rather mostly the result of the terrible system

-          Organizations tend to get the union they deserve     

      Reform is often viewed as a threat to good jobs for local residents – there are huge racial dynamics at work

      The real problem isn't the unions, but "The Blob": the whole system of millions of jobs, the politicians who feed off it, the bureaucratic inertia that's built up over decades, etc.

      Even if we overcame the political obstacles, implementing reform and improving such a big, broken system is enormously difficult and will take a long time

-          It's important to have realistic expectations – but also not to get discouraged

-          The journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step – and we're many steps into the journey and making real progress


The debate gets very testy at many points because Brill challenges Ravitch's standard talking points, but at least they ended by agreeing that it would be a great experiment if KIPP took over an entire failing district like Detroit.  The closest KIPP is coming to this today is in Houston, where KIPP and Yes Prep are on course to take nearly 20% of all public school students in the district within a decade.  One could also argue that John White taking over New Orleans, which is nearly 80% charter schools now, and Cami Anderson taking over Newark are somewhat analogous.

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