Steven Brill on How to Fix Public Schools

"[Teaching] is the only workplace, the only occupation, where by and large you are not paid, promoted, recognized, measured in any way having to do with your performance, only having to do with how long you've been breathing," says journalist and media entrepreneur Steven Brill.

His new book, Class Warfare, chronicles the rise of a reform movement that's bringing a measure of accountability and choice to public schools. The book grew out of Brill's widely read 2009 New Yorker piece about the "rubber room," a holding pen for New York City teachers who couldn't be fired after they were removed from their classrooms for poor performance.

Reason.tv's Nick Gillespie sat down with Brill at his office in New York City.

Approximately 7 minutes.

Camera by Jim Epstein and Anthony Fisher; edited by Epstein.

Go to Reason.tv for downloadable versions, and subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube Channel to receive immediate updates when new material goes live.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Why do we only seem to discuss public schools in urban or suburban areas? Don't the shitkickers in rural America merit addressing?

  • ||

    the shitkickers, as you call them, are not the ones plagued with ridiculous dropout and teen preggers rates, they are not four grade levels behind their peers, and they are not costing an arm and leg to educate. Unlike the urbans, they have mommas and daddies; unlike the suburbans, the mommas and daddies are more interested in being their kids' parents rather than their friends. In short, they are not being addressed because their need for fixing is far less than that of urban and suburban districts.

  • Suki||

    Funny how those home schoolers keep kicking ass over the "professional" schoolers. Government teachers are the only people who get away with blaming how bad they suck on the people who pay them and the people who they are supposed to be teaching.

  • o2||

    there's no homeschoolers on my daughter's college volleyball team. and neither she nor I have every met a homeschooler playing college sports.

  • Libertarian Boys Club||

    That's because they go straight to the Olympics

  • Abdul||

    There's no double asshole's daughter on my list of female serial killers. Therefore, I must send my daughter to public school or she will become a serial killer!!!!

    Sheesh, have your daughter's volleyball teach you about logic sometime.

  • o3||

    "funny how those home schoolers keep kicking ass over the "professional" schoolers."
    _
    suki lied about student-athletes since home-schoolers dont kick anyone's ass. do try to keep up please.

  • daughter's volleyball ||

  • teh rael o3||

    ok kinda funny...wilson !

  • teh rael o3||

    ok kinda funny...wilson !

  • BRM||

    Could it be that the home school kids don't get to play high school sports and therefore don't get the coaching, and training necessary to get a slot on a college team?

    The public schools here in Omaha don't let these kids play sports, so it seems likely to me, that this is due to negative selection bias.

  • BRM||

    Could it be that the home school kids don't get to play high school sports and therefore don't get the coaching, and training necessary to get a slot on a college team?

    The public schools here in Omaha don't let these kids play sports, so it seems likely to me, that this is due to negative selection bias.

  • CE||

    Ever heard of Tim Tebow? Heisman trophy, national championship, first round draft pick....

  • ||

    Because poor blacks and Hispanics live in urban and some suburban areas.

    Rural people tend to be mostly white. So, they can hack it.

  • ||

    I'm generalizing with some healthy snark, of course. Brill touches on rural districts in the interview - not sure how he discusses them in his book.

    There are some large areas in my state where the schools are regionalized, and serve a wide variety of socioeconomic classes and ethnic backgrounds - immigrant and otherwise. The last one at which I taught was about 65/35 Asian/white and wealthy and a combo of ELLs and (mostly) Hispanic people living below the poverty line. Even in this well funded school district, overall performance from the poorer, non-English speaking kids was lacking. Plenty of the white kids couldn't get it together, either.

    It's not always the school, but most people seem to target schools as the problem anyway, even people who want reform.

  • ||

    that should be about 65% asian/white/wealthy and 35% poor, immigrant, ELL, etc.

  • Mike M.||

    [Teaching] is the only workplace, the only occupation, where by and large you are not paid, promoted, recognized, measured in any way having to do with your performance, only having to do with how long you've been breathing.

    I'm not sure if there are any easy answers to curing the dysfunction that reigns in our current public education system.

    When Michelle Rhee tried to make an honest, good faith effort to implement a performance-based system in the District of Columbia, it directly resulted in what is probably the worst cheating scandal perpetrated by teachers and principals in the history of our country.

  • Spencer||

    [Teaching] is the only workplace, the only occupation, where by and large you are not paid, promoted, recognized, measured in any way having to do with your performance, only having to do with how long you've been breathing.

    He should check out a major library system sometime.

  • ||

    While "choice" sounds great and would be helpful, it skips over the reality of the benefits of neighborhood schools. For years my kids could walk or ride a bike to school only because it was nearby. Those who choose private schools have to figure out how to get their kids there, and it often means a stay-at-home mom is required to make it work. Choice would create a logistical nightmare for most parents and make bus service complicated and very very expensive.

  • celtigirl||

    Actually, logistics-wise it's not that complicated. My kids have been at private schools in both the south and on the west coast, and both schools started at 8a with parental drop off as early as 7:30a, and extended day programs that lasted until 6p for working parents. At one school the YMCA bus came and picked up kids for their after school programs. So, drop kids off on the way to work and pick them up on the way home -- not too difficult.

  • Spencer||

    Yes. By all means, let's accept the current system because there *might* be problems if we change one part of the system but don't change the others to accomodate new issues that arrise.

  • ||

    I was brainstorming ideas for fixing public education:

    What if we allowed any person to get a teacher's license in any subject if they pass a grade level subject competency test with a 90% rating. Let's say they designate six areas that qualify for each grade level (say, English, math, science, history/social studies, literature and one optional subject like Spanish/consumer finance/economics/art history/etc.) So anyone can get a teacher's license in up to six subjects.

    Then, the government would give the teacher a voucher equal to $1500 per student per passed test in said subject. Students would register with a teacher for each subject (or one teacher for all subjects, whatever combination the parents choose.) Tests would have to be administered in some neutral location to avoid cheating. Assuming a teacher qualified in all subjects takes a class of 10 kids who pass all tests, that's $90,000 a year, and you have just cut educational expenditures in half ($7,500 per student instead of $12,000) while giving parents complete freedom to find the best teacher for their kids. Also, taxpayers wouldn't pay until kids pass the grade level. It would also provide subsidies for homeschooling and encourage private schools to take more kids.

    Also, grade levels would not need to be on an annual basis, thus teachers could accellerate gifted students and pace the kids with more difficulties. But if you can pass high school by the age of 11, more power to you.

    In addition, more in-demand teachers could optionally charge tuition (potentially with repayment when the student passes). This gives parents incentives to make sure their kids learn. Or the teacher could offer some sort of reward directly to the kids.

    It's kind of like vouchers, but more results-oriented. You'd still probably need a public school for those kids with no hope of finding a teacher willing to waste their time on them, and some of the savings from the vouchers can go to finding motivated, masochistic individuals willing to try to get those kids to succeed but who won't have to necessarily be as results-oriented.

    Thoughts? It's obviously not a purist libertarian solution, but I'm not a purist libertarian on education, where I think the welfare state should start and end. It is a hell of a lot more market-oriented and a lot more likely to get results - even compared to private school vouchers, imho.

  • ||

    I have long been an advocate of basing grade level on achievement versus the status quo age-based system. Remembering back to my school days, there were kids that were way ahead of their peers that were bored out of their skulls and there were students that were behind the power curve but not far behind enough to get held back. Neither of these groups of students were in any way conducive to a good learning environment.

  • DLM||

    Then, the government would give the teacher a voucher equal to $1500 per student per passed test in said subject.

    You'd have teachers teaching to the test. One idea I remember that I though had promise was to have the person teaching and the person giving the test to be different. Perhaps some outside agency to administer tests.

  • ||

    You'd have teachers teaching to the test.

    Isn't that what we want? I mean, if the subject they are supposed to teach is trigonometry, shouldn't they teach that, no matter how much they might prefer to teach Swahili?

  • ||

    I taught middle school special education in an urban setting for two years as part of the New Teacher Project. I went to a top-tier college, am working on my masters, and am considered a model teacher.

    The reality is that had I been able to handpick my students (as the private school I am at now does), I would have easily met those standards.

    Say what you will about teachers making excuses, but you have yet to sit beside a 7th grade student with an IQ in the low 60s that's entered your classroom at a PreK reading level. What teacher would make the decision to take students such as this when it means they will need to improve their achievement over 7 grade levels in 1 year to make them proficient on the test?

    The private school I'm at now will not take special education students. Many of these students are counseled out of charter schools. The sheer amount of money, specialized staff, (a room full of filing cabinets brimming with IEPs), make teaching students with special needs near impossible in the plan you just described.

    No one wants to talk about it, but not every student is destined for higher education. Since when have Americans looked down at trade schools and apprenticeships?

    Read our national tech plan. Its standards demand true individualized education and are the antithesis of race to the top. You'll be struck by just how much common sense they make.

  • EasyPeasy||

    To me, the problems, with public education in the United States, seem much more deep seated than just crappy teachers or underfunded schools.

    The whole system has become more about political indoctrination and social experimentation than actually teaching useful material.

    A person who graduates from high school should not then need to attend a vocational school in order to find a job.

    High school should prepare the student for college, but only if they are planning on attending college. Otherwise students should be prepared to enter the workforce.

  • ||

    The "no child left behind" philosophy means that many of these school systems have additional pressure to move to an LCD format.

    That, and the increasing inability to maintain discipline and remove troublemakers is cheating all of the other students in the class. As said in other comments above, many in these systems don't have the will or intellectual firepower to do well in College, but they're being forced into that direction because of concerns that minority students will be sidetracked into less prestigious occupations.

    They have this all ass-backwards. a proper philosophy would be to emphasize excellence, put a lot of money into G&T programs so they could improve the education of those who can cut it in college. Then identify people who have the brains and interest to learn a skill and teach them that so they can get an actual job. Remove troublemakers and increase discipline in the classroom. Maybe if that happened higher quality teachers would come to some of these schools.

    The remainder should concentrate on basic life skills, and should at least be able to read, write, comprehend a moderately complex sentence, and balance a checkbook.

    One of the worst long term problems we face is the lack of any good employment opportunities for many who are "graduating" from our school systems now. Our emphasis should be on cutting the percentage of unemployable people to the bare minimum, and that requires an emphasis on excellence, not LCD.

    Since there's no chance that anything like this would occur in the public school systems I'm an advocate for vouchers and homeschooling.

  • CE||

    How to fix public schools:

    1. Disband them and let the free market provide competing alternatives to parents, continually improving quality and reducing costs to try to dominate the market.

    2. Watch parents suddenly get more involved in their children's education when they are paying for it with their own money.

    3. Let the great number of those expressing concern about offering fair educational opportunities to underprivileged children do so through donations to parochial schools and scholarships to private academies.

  • ugg en france||

    nice!

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement