Steve Brill's Imperviousness to the Facts

Steve Brill wrote a controversial and much criticized article in thein his ongoing effort to demonize the teachers union.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Steve Brill wrote a controversial and much criticized article in the NY Times Magazine in his ongoing effort to demonize the teachers union and promote the privatization of public education.

The article failed to interview a single opponent of the rapid spread of charters except for the sole exception of Michael Mulgrew, the head of the teachers union in NYC, although there are many parents, advocates and experts throughout the country who decry how our public schools are being steadily undermined by their expansion, with a two tiered system, inherently inequitable, taking hold.

He failed to mention the bitter battles over space taking place in communities throughout the city, as charters invade and often take over classrooms, libraries, art rooms, and special education intervention spaces, leading to students with disabilities having to receive their services in hallways or converted closets. He neglected to mention the legions of disaffected charter parents, who complain of their children suffering overly harsh disciplinary methods and being pushed out of their schools. He failed to mention any of the numerous scandals in which charter operators have been found to engage in improper financial practices.

But the most absurd part of his article was when he compared the scores of children at PS 149 with those at Harlem Success Academy, the charter school that shares its building, implying that they served the same sort of students. These were his exact words: "Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents."

Last week, Brill responded to online questions at EdWeek; one concerned the claims he made in his NY Times article:

Mr Brill, given the importance of these issues and the crisis in funding for public education today, I was troubled by the unbalanced nature of your recent NYT Magazine cover story. Specifically, Where was balanced discussion of conflicting research on the diversity of the charter school movement, showing that many charter schools - even in new york - underperform district schools; that charter schools enroll significantly smaller proportions of ELL and SPED students than district schools; and that some charter schools do counsel out students, in which cases declining cohorts of students correlate powerfully with increasing test scores? Where was serious discussion from experts on both sides of the education reform divide of the inadequacy of standardized testing as a metric for evaluating student and teacher performance? ....

This is how Brill responded:

The way i stepped through that debate was 1) to acknowledge clearly that not all charters schools are good for kids (didn't you see that statement?); and 2) to use a building that had two schools in it -- one a charter, one a traditional public school -- and compare expenses and results side by side. I labored over this, and think the comparison is valid FOR THOSE TWO schools. And taxpayers pay nothing extra for the school choice that these two schools provide, so i don't understand you statement that the government is using "valuable funding as a stick to spur undemocratic reforms." Choice is usually thought of as being pretty democratic. As for empirical evidence, one thing is clear, we keep spending more money than all other countries with worse results. And the charter i spent time examining spends less with better results.

First of all, nowhere in his article or the above is it mentioned that Eva Moskowitz raised $2.4 million for her charter schools in 2009, and pays herself a very hefty salary.

Secondly, it is clear that Steve Brill still hasn't learned a thing.

Numerous blogs have shown since the publication of his article that these two schools have widely different student populations.

Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post; Kim Gittleson in Gotham Schools, and I at the NYC public school parent blog, have pointed out in detail the disparity in the sort of students enrolled in Harlem Success Academy compared to PS 149; and how the charter school enrolls far lower numbers of free lunch, English language learners, special ed students with serious learning disabilities, and homeless kids.

Here are the figures side by side (taken from each school's NY State report cards from 2008-9, Kim's analysis of sped reports and homeless figures from here and here):

PS 149vs. Harlem Success Academy
% free lunch: 68% vs. 49%
% Limited English Proficient: 10% vs.2%
% students with IEPs: 21% vs.14%
% of IEPs; separately educated more than 20% of day: 67% vs.35%
% homeless students: 10% vs.1%

Apparently, Brill is impervious to correction, with PS 149 serving many more poor students, five times the percent of LEP students, twice as many seriously disabled students, and ten times the number of homeless.

Taking a closer look at the state report cards, I also examined the data relating to teachers and staff (all for 2008-9, unless otherwise indicated):

PS 149 vs. Harlem Success Academy
teacher turnover (2007-8): 22% vs. 50%
total no. of teachers: 41 vs. 27
total no. of other professional staff: 7 vs. 26

HSA had twice the teacher attrition than PS 149; with fully half of all teachers turning over that year. This is not the sign of a good working (or learning) environment. Apparently as a result of this high level of attrition, 30% of HSA teachers had less than 3 years experience in 2008-9- compared to 20% at PS 149.

The comparative data on "other professional staff" is quite striking: HSA had 27 teachers and 26 other "professional staff" in 2008-9. Compare that with 41 teachers at PS 149, with only 7 other professional staff.

I don't know who all these other "professionals" are, whether they are administrators, fundraisers, PR flacks, or people who actually provide instruction or services to kids; but so little proportional investment in classroom teachers seems to me an indication of poor educational priorities.

See also the many letters written in response to Brill's articles in today's NY Times magazine.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community