Friday, September 4, 2009

Steven Brill Wrote a Really Bad Article

I tried to think of a cutesy title for a while, perhaps involving a pun, but I decided to just say what I thought.

On Sunday, I wrote that it's probably not as hard to get rid of "bad teachers" as many might think.  That was prompted largely by this piece in the New Yorker by Steven Brill about NYC's so-called "rubber room."  Just so we're all on the same page here, the rubber room (actually a variety of locations throughout the city) are where teachers who are accused of misdeeds or rated unsatisfactory by their principals are sent to twiddle their thumbs until they get a hearing.  Teachers often report there for years, getting paid to do little besides gossip and catch up on their crosswords.

When I started seeing reaction to Brill's piece (before reading it), I thought it was going to be an illuminating piece on life inside the rubber room.  So I read it.  Turns out it was a slanted hit job on teachers and their unions instead.  Maybe it's not the New Yorker's style, but there was never any pretense that this would be an objective piece or attempt to answer honest questions.  Instead, he went searching for proof that teachers' unions are bad and that Joel Klein is right.

He manages to uncover some anecdotes that should thoroughly embarrass the union and highlight some rules and procedures that need to be altered.  But he does so with a chip on his shoulder and a disjointed view of reality.  Here are his seven deadly sins:

1.) He seems to assume that all teachers in the rubber room are bad teachers and/or bad people (the subtitle is "the battle over New York City's worst teachers").  He snidely notes that a teacher who has been in the rubber room for two years and claims to deserve every penny of her salary got into teaching because she "loves children."  I have little doubt that a good number of the people in the rubber room shouldn't be teaching.  But I'm also quite sure that more than a couple never should've been assigned there in the first place.  So to suddenly decide that all 600 or so teachers are among the worst human beings alive seems rather extreme.  Especially since he reports only being granted access to the records of one of the teachers.  In the future, he should learn more about people before condemning them.

2.) He cites numbers as gospel that don't mean nearly what he says they do.  He says that in 2002 97% of teachers earn tenure, that 99% are rated satisfactory, and that almost none were fired.  But he fails to take into account that at least half of all teachers in NYC quit before they're ever eligible for tenure.  Or that a heck of a lot of teachers leave their school and/or the profession without being rated unsatisfactory or being fired.  Besides, those stats could just as easily mean that there are a lot of good teachers -- or, if that's not the case, that principals are failing to report problems in their schools.  A more critical examination of the numbers was in order.

3.) He cites the 2006 Brookings report that reported back of the envelope calculations concluding that having the best teachers for four consecutive years can close the achievement gap.  Despite the fact that this haphazard calculation has been widely discredited by an array of scholars.  There was never any evidence that this statement might be true, it was simply an ill-informed guess.  But it's awfully convenient to cite when cherry-picking evidence to use against your enemies.

4.) His comments on the Absent Teacher Reserve are overly simplistic.  It's likely that a good number of ATR teachers who remain without jobs for a long period of time are either not ideal candidates or not trying too hard to find a job.  But there's also evidence that principals shy away from hiring experienced ATR teachers in order to hire younger, cheaper teachers.  This could be corrected by changing the way such hires affect a school's budget.  Brill fails to address this.  Or the fact that teachers are in the ATR through no fault or shortcoming of their own.  Nor does he take any time to investigate whether the NYC Dept. of Education -- which, usually, is responsible for teachers being placed in the ATR -- is making a good faith attempt to help these teachers find jobs.  Or at least providing them with the necessary information regarding job openings in a practical manner.

5.) He presents an uncritical look at value-added test scores -- assuming that anybody who says using such measures is a good thing is smart and anybody who says we should be careful when using it is obstinate.  These measures are simply not ready for prime time.  Period.  NYC tried using invalid measures to grade schools, and what was the result?  97% of all schools in one of the worst districts in the country were awarded an A or a B.  Wouldn't it be ironic if the use of test scores for tenure decisions was adopted in order to make it easier to fire teachers and, instead, it made it harder?  Given how much easier this year's state test was than the previous year's, that's likely what would have happened -- gains in scores would indicate that almost all teachers did a phenomenal job, making it harder to deny tenure to those with questionable records.  Let's think through the possible ramifications of using value-added scores before deciding to do so.

6.) Brill reports that 1.8% of NYC's 87,300 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings last year, but that only 50 people total are in the rubber room while "the rest still teach." Given that most people remain in the rubber room for 2-3 years, this would mean that only about 20 of the 1570 or so teachers rated unsatisfactory each year are removed from the classroom, while the other 1550 remain.  And that's simply not true.  It would mean that only 20 per year are removed from the classroom and choose to fight it.  I'm almost positive that more than 1% of the teachers rated unsatisfactory are not allowed to remain in the classroom the following year.  But even if I'm wrong about that, he neither includes those who are asked to leave and do so quietly nor the umpteen teachers who self-select out or are asked to leave without a corresponding U rating.

7.) Worst of all, he ruined what could've been a fantastic article.  He found some legitimate problems that need to be dealt with in the next round of contract negotiations.  He has some fascinating stories to tell from his experiences in the mysterious rubber room.  I find it especially interesting that every teacher he mentions seems so adamant that they've been persecuted by a Bloomberg/Klein regime to which they seem militantly opposed.  I would really like to know more about why this is.  Instead, he mockingly dismisses their claims and wonders why it's so hard to fire "freaks" and "crazies."  And this is typical of the rest of the article.  He could've reported facts, provided illuminating stories, and begun a sensible discussion on what to do about all this.  Instead, he provides a slanted analysis of a variety of misleading facts peppered with snide remarks.  And that's too bad.


JSS said...

Bravo, Corey! Very well stated. I couldn't even get through half of that article, so thanks for a cogent reply!

Sasha M. Harris said...

You've hit the nail on the head with this one. I was particularly annoyed with the way he cavalierly cited statistics without acknowledging the arguments against them or their recognized flaws. Your analysis of the problems with the school rating system adroitly points out how the use of test scores may cause more problems for the DOE down the road. But lets not make Brill the only target for our frustration. He's merely a businessman and a lawyer who dabbles in journalism. I was particularly bothered by the way this slanted article with so many obvious flaws was able to make it as a featured piece in The New Yorker.

Unknown said...

Excellent dismantling. Thanks.

Richard said...

Yes, this was a hatched job. Not up to New Yorker standards.

You ask a good question. How WILL the other teachers be given merit pay?

There is great concern among the teaching ranks as to how "Race to the Top", Obama's merit pay scheme, will play out. If scores are attached to the teacher giving the test, that would be vastly unfair. If the test is given in second period on language, math and science skills, the second period orchestra teacher is likely to get a windfall since orchestra students are generally the higher scoring kids. Yet the orchestra teacher is not their language, math or science teacher. Perhaps during second period, the excellent math teacher happens to have her low end class who don't score as well; she doesn't get credit for the job she's doing with the orchestra kids in her fifth period class.

Remember Mark Twain. There are three kind of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.