Updated: Facts and opinion from Steve Brill’s new book

Steve Brill, the entrepreneur and journalist who wrote the New Yorker story about New York City’s teacher rubber rooms, says he knows what’s wrong with failing American schools after two years of reporting on the subject: teacher union contracts. He is not alone in this, of course, but he’s about to publish a book this summer, Class Warfare, that will expound on this conclusion and may result in the same blast of attention to the issue that came after the release of the film “Waiting For Superman” last year.

Last night at a New American Foundation panel in TriBeCa, Brill gave a preview of the book, and talked about the problems with last in-first out and his approval of the charter school movement. He also discussed several “noble facts” which he believes should end the debate over the right course in education reform. Those in the education realm, including those on Brill’s side, may be less certain on some of his points, however, so I thought I’d explore a couple in more detail here:

He disputed the claim by charter critics that charter schools “cream” more highly-achieving students from their neighborhoods, leaving the harder-to-educate students to the regular public schools. Researchers who look at charter schools, however, even those who tend to support the movement, have been careful in designing studies to compare charter school performance with that of regular public schools because of a phenomenon known as selection bias.

Here is how a study by the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt explains it: “Selection bias is a valid concern when studying schools of choice because students who select charter schools may be atypical of the larger population of traditional public school students in ways that may influence achievement. If selection bias is not controlled for statistically, the charter school effect may reflect the unobservable reasons, such as personal motivation or ambition, that a student switched to a charter school rather than the true effect of attending a charter school.”

Related to this, Brill asserted that charters educate the same proportion of special education students as the regular public schools. This has not been the case in several large districts, however. In Los Angeles, the percentages were 12 percent in the regular schools, compared to 6 percent in charters. A similar disparity has been found in cities in Massachusetts, and in New Orleans.

What do you think? Are there certain facts that educators, reformers and others can all agree on?


A reader who was at the panel on Tuesday, writes with a correction. He says that Steve Brill actually said “knowable facts,” which in retrospect make much more sense than what I heard.

He also commented that he isn’t sure Brill was arguing that charters don’t cream students, that rather, he understood him as disputing the claims of critics who attribute all charter school success to creaming.


POSTED BY ON June 8, 2011