Sunday, September 04, 2011

Brill responds to Kopp

Here's Steve Brill's response to Wendy Kopp's critique of Class Warfare and her belief that teacher value-added scores should not be made public:

I wasn't able to discern from Ms. Kopp's comments exactly what she didn't like about my book, but, other than feeling a need to demonstrate false modesty, my guess is that she felt that it read like a novel/soap opera because it focused heavily on personalities, which offended her sense that the discussion about this serious issue should be focused on the ISSUES, not the people.

That reminds me of the criticism my colleagues and I got of The American Lawyer when we started. We took the view that PEOPLE make events happen, not institutions – and that the people in America's law firms or courtrooms doing great things or not so great things were terrific, uncovered stories.

I couldn't agree more about the seriousness of the issues surrounding public education.  I wrote the book the way I did for two reasons: first, I wanted people to read it.  There have been endless academic papers and long-winded policy-oriented books, but I don't think many people read them and, thus, they don't have much impact.  Second and more important, I think all important stories, including the fight over education reform are about the people who make them happen. (Even the Arab Spring, with its overlay of world-shattering issues, is a story about individual people and what they did or didn't do, starting with the guy in the market in Tunisia.)

That's why I always tell my journalism students that they should laugh whenever they see a story that says, "The White House today said…" Buildings don't talk (or make decisions or make good or bad things happen.)

To come back to education, narrating how Wendy Kopp turned a thesis into TFA – and all the mis-steps she had along the way while persevering – is not simple gloss; it's a great story and a great lesson. (Plus good reading.) Explaining Randi Weingarten's or Eva Moskowitz's challenges isn't gossip and doesn't diminish the important of the issues or their work. It helps explain those issues – and makes civilians more likely to understand them.

It's one thing to pontificate about the question of teacher burnout. It's another to tell Jessica Reid's personal story as it unfolds.

As for Ms. Kopp's only substantive complaint in her comments, there is a big difference between a "good manager" of a private enterprise publicly posting the performance data related to private employees and the stewards of the taxpayers' dollar having to report to those taxpayers on how their employees are performing. Again, I thought the reformers' priority is the kids, not the morale of the adults. Finally, if the tests still need improvement – and they do – the best way to make the testers and the academics who support the tests accountable is to make the tests public and put this issue out into the marketplace of ideas where the tests can be attacked on the merits and improved.

(More on the debate about releasing teacher scores below.)

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