Sunday, September 04, 2011

Kopp responds to Brill

Anyone who thinks Brill is some sort of tool for the reformers doesn't know Brill and hasn't read his book carefully.  He isn't shy about critiquing we reformers, which is as it should be – we make plenty of mistakes and fair critiques lead to good debates.  Here's Wendy Kopp, who isn't a fan of the book (I think her criticism is too harsh and doesn't give enough credit to the book's much greater merits), and, in particular, takes issue with Brill's criticism of TFA's refusal to share its ratings of TFA corps members – I'm torn on this, as I wrote a year ago (


To absolutely nobody's surprise, A.J. Duffy, one of the most backward union leaders in the country, is trying to intimidate the LA Times by organizing a boycott (which will, of course, fizzle).  He's right that this article isn't fair to many teachers who will be identified as ineffective even though some of them probably aren't.  This raises troubling privacy issues, especially since tests alone, even when used in conjunction with a good value-added analysis, aren't a sufficient way to properly evaluate teachers (contrary to union talking points, NOBODY thinks this is the case).

So why do I think this reporting by the LA Times is so important and why did I call it "breakthrough journalism"?  Because it's going to force both the unions and the school district to stop the unconscionable status quo, whereby NO teachers are evaluated in any meaningful way at all – where 99% of teachers get a satisfactory rating, every probationary teachers gets lifetime tenure for merely having a pulse, etc.

Here's Kopp:


Whitney, I thought I'd take a moment and share with you, and your readers if you're up for printing, my response to a piece of Brill's essay. 


Brill writes: "There are many situations where the reformers have been naïve, arrogant, or hypocritical. For example, Teach for America is hilariously hypocritical when it comes to teacher accountability; the organization rates its teachers rigorously, but won't tell parents or prospective employers of those teachers anything about the ratings for fear of hurting their corps members' morale. Huh?"


To step back, I just finally read through Brill's book yesterday on the first day of my vacation on the Jersey shore and am still trying to figure out what to make of it and of your enthusiasm for it.  First there are pages and pages that make what has been a very challenging and very serious effort to improve urban and rural schools into a soap opera -- pages that I fear will do damage by leading many to think that this effort is more about a bunch of privileged people making a name for themselves than it is about a diverse group of people working with seriousness of purpose and love for kids.  I found so many inaccuracies in these pages, so many issues that were addressed in an overly flippant manner, and, speaking for myself, many quotes that were wrong and were never checked.  In the concluding pages Brill finally attempts to weigh in on what he thinks it will take to succeed.  As Sara Mosle captured in her brilliant book review, it is hard to understand the connection between his conclusion and the rest of the book, but Brill does in fact get near making a compelling point that we're going to have to fix the whole system through good leadership and management if we're going to make schools work in a way that's sustainable for teachers, i.e. we can't rely on a bunch of superheroes to solve this problem.


I believe this is exactly right.  We need to resolve that we're going to achieve great outcomes for all of our kids and then go after this exceedingly ambitious mission with the level of energy and discipline it takes to attain exceedingly ambitious outcomes in any endeavor.  To do so we'll need to reject the lurch from one silver bullet solution to another that has characterized so much of  the last twenty years  of education reform (as an example, this is the year of the teacher; fix the teachers and we'll solve the problem) and instead ground ourselves in the hard-learned lessons from the now hundreds of schools that are showing us that success is possible.  It is possible, but only with extraordinary leaders who build strong teams and strong cultures, who manage aggressively, and who are committed to providing the extra time and supports to set students up for success.  There's no quick fix, but as Brill quotes Dave Levin as saying, we'd better get started now or we're never going to get anywhere.


Given this context, is it really naive to think that we should not be printing the names of teachers and the results they get on standardized tests in newspapers?  Or is the naivete the notion that this might be a good path forward?


There's no good manager I know, inside or outside of education, who would resort to printing the names of their staff members and their performance levels in newspapers as a strategy for organizational improvement.  In refusing to publish the performance assessments of Teach For America's corps members, we are treating our teachers with respect and endeavoring to build the kind of relationship with them that will give us the best chance of improving their performance over time. 


There's also nothing hypocritical about this stance; I was as outraged by the L.A. Times decision to print the list of Los Angeles' teachers and their performance ratings as I was appalled by the notion that Teach For America should operate similarly.  


If we're going to realize educational excellence and equity, we're going to need to stay centered and resist getting caught up in blame games.  We spent much of the last two decades blaming kids and families for the achievement gap; that was wrong, but it's not right to blame teachers either.  As Brill argues, we need to fix the system.  We've seen over the last twenty years that we can make extraordinary progress toward this end -- through determined leadership from inside and outside of the system, from within schools and districts, from within the teaching profession and our unions, through advocacy, policy and political leadership.  To do so will require  that we keep this about kids and communities, and that we treat all those who are engaged in the hard work with respect.

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