By John Thompson
Steve Brill’s Class Warfare is full of breathless accounts of the rich and powerful that are reminiscent of the biographies of Kitty Kelly. Ironically, the most valuable part of his Class Warfare may be his accounts of dramatic decisions to undertake risky and revolutionary "reforms" based on minimal evidence and some strange assumptions.
According to Brill, "Identifying Effective Teaching Using Performance on the Job" by Tom Kane, Robert Gordon, and Douglas Staiger was used to convince Bill Gates and President Obama that "teacher quality," measured by standardized tests, must be the focus of reform. According to Brill, they argued that tests showed, "remarkable consistency among teachers," and that "obviously" this suggested that the person in front of the classroom was the key to closing the achievement gap. Gates was supposedly told that the "surprising" lack of volatility in the test scores of one district meant we could trust algorithms to drive the firing of teachers. If we believe Brill, because of the stability in the charts that Kane and Gordon presented to Gates, we should presume that 25% of teachers with the lowest test score growth should be fired.
Perhaps I should make no assumptions, and use my 90% low-income district to explain Urban Education 101 for reformers. In our six magnet and charter high schools, the attendance rates never drop below 95%, while our seven neighborhood schools struggle to reach an attendance rate of 80%. When you add in the far lower enrollment rates and the far higher suspension rates in the neighborhood schools, their students attend class at a rate that is 1/4th to 1/3rd less than their peers in selective schools (and far less than their previous three years in middle school.) It would take a superhuman effort for neighborhood school teachers, with kids who are five to six years behind grade level in reading, to meet growth targets that were not controlled for school selectivity.
By the way, those patterns are all stable. Should we thus assume that the teachers in the magnet schools are better than the teachers in neighborhood schools with deplorable scores?
Neither would anyone with firsthand knowledge of actual classrooms assume that a relative lack of test score volatility within schools justifies the "reformers’" extraordinary conclusions. I would assume that Kane, at least, would know that even when student assignment policies are stable, students are assigned differently to tested and non-tested classes. I wonder how he would address a stable pattern in my district where middle school "Science" classes are taught to the names, dates, facts, and figures of the benchmark tests, producing pass rates ranging from 70 to 73%. Then freshmen Biology students have a pass rate that fluctuates from 30% to 51% to 41% on tests designed to measure scientific thinking. Since the Biology teachers’ growth targets would be based on middle school tests, would Kane support the mass firing of those teachers for failure to meet targets generated from the results of different tests?
Recognizing that districts differ, let us take some more obvious examples of stable patterns from my school system. As 5th graders, the kids of Zip Code 73120 attend schools with poverty rates ranging from 23%, 50%, 69%, and 76%, with the special education populations ranging from 5.5% to 14%. The number of suspensions are 0, 14, 33, and 86. The pass rates for 5th grade Reading range from 81% to 95%.
Between 5th and 6th grade, the district's student population drops by nearly 1/5th as the numbers of special education and ELL students increase. In 73120, the decline is more remarkable as the majority of their students move to magnet, enterprise, and charter schools, including four that have gained national recognition. So, the 6th graders arrive at a school with 2,020 disciplinary actions, which lost its middle class students after the campus policeman was hospitalized in a riot, and where 1/4th of their class are on IEPs. Should the 6th grade teachers to be blamed for a Reading pass rate of 44%? Is it reasonable to expect those teachers to meet test score targets based on the three previous years of performance in very different types of classrooms, with incomparably different peer effects?
Similarly, a non-educator might be unaware that the challenges facing an Algebra II class are radically different to those of an Algebra I class next door. The demographic differences between the two math classes, however, are just as stark as the unbelievable differences between our 5th and 6th graders. My school was the lowest-ranked secondary school in Oklahoma, but the percentages of poor and at-risk juniors in Algebra II were not dramatically different to the percentages in many suburban schools. After all, 1/3rd or more of the freshmen Algebra I students drop out before reaching their 11th grade year. (By the way, 9th grade is the year when the enrollment rate reaches rock bottom, with the average freshmen being in school for less than 2/3rds of a year, and when the truancy and suspension rates explode. Should we fire most, if not all inner city Algebra I teachers for not raising the performance of students who do not attend class?)
Worst of all, the Gates shop has given no indication that they have become aware of the difference between a student with a math or a reading disability, as opposed to a conduct disorder or serious emotional disturbances. Neither have they dealt with the effect of federal policies on how schools are allowed to handle those students, and the implication for schools where 35 to 40% of their students are on Individual Education Plans.
In other words, they do not have the background knowledge to comprehend the scenario described by Paul Tough where an inner city class of thirty kids, because it has 8 to 10 kids who have been traumatized to the point where their brain circuitry has been altered, degenerates into a culture of hitting and fighting. Otherwise, how could Kane and Gates assume that teachers with those sorts of classes would have a chance of hitting their growth targets?
Unless these theorists assumed that Seriously Emotionally Disturbed students are distributed evenly throughout our diverse nation's classrooms, they betrayed a basic misunderstanding of peer effects in urban schools. A class where a third of the students are well- behaved kids with cognitive differences, can not be compared to a class with a critical mass of children who have been victimized to the point where they can not control their behavior. And if the theorists have that level of ignorance, perhaps they also are unaware that schools facing an impossible load of the most difficult-to-educate students tend to turn certain classes into dumping grounds.
Brill’s Class Warfare included 19 pages of sources and endnotes, but there is no indication that he read any of the immense body of social science on teaching, learning, and schooling. According to Brill, Gates gave the go-ahead for his Measuring Effective Teaching effort after two hours of discussion. There was no indication that Gates was exposed to scholarship that contradicted the hypothesis that teacher quality must drive reform.
Had Gates been briefed on the way schools are organized, and the need for early education, a concentration on reading comprehension and socio-emotional skills before 3rd grade, the need for high-quality curriculum, and the promise of community schools that turn education into a team effort, I doubt this smart man would have assumed that there was only one way to fix urban schools.
If Gates, or for that matter, if President Obama (who later adopted the Gates agenda) had been provided a full and fair briefing by educators as well as economists, it would be no skin off Brill's nose. There are still plenty of Kitty Kelly-type books out there begging to be written by a person with Brill's confidence that he obviously knows all of the answers.
Dr. John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com, and huffingtonpost.com, and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside.