Brooks It

David Brooks weighs-in on the week’s dueling manifestos and presidential politics/edupolicy. Background below.

22 Replies to “Brooks It”

  1. Is this not another one of those false dichotomies that Dewey warned us to avoid? Does any thinking person not think that the answer here is both: we need more things around schools, but we also need better schools? Why turn this into a fight when you could potentially join forces?
    Jal Mehta

  2. Yes, you can and should but only one of these coalitions is for that so it is dichotomous.

  3. Wow, David Brooks’ choice of words really illustrates how the swift-boaters around the Education Equality Project have defined the participants in this discussion.

    On the one hand you have Nobel Prize winner Jim Heckman being called the “status quo,” while ABD unaccountable blogger Rotherham is dubbed the reformist “expert.” Doesn’t anyone else see how completely messed up this is?

    Anyone who bothers to read Heckman’s work (and, I think, Heckman himself) would be pretty surprised of his status quo characterization. Same goes for many other thinkers on this list.

    Anonymous 9:38 apparently is hinting that the “reformist” group are the only true uniters, not dividers, but what evidence is there of this? All I’ve seen since the original Broader and Bolder ad is name-calling–the usual “defenders of the status quo,” “that 70’s show,” etc. Disgusting.

  4. Say it ain’t so?!

    You’ve been making all of these moderate statements. Granted, you indicated that you were closer to Klein, and maybe Rhee, on a couple of local issues (am I wrong in sensing that you are more uneasy about Rhee, and certainly you are right that the union position on the excess teacher pool is politically disadvantageous, but that doesn’t mean you don’t understand why the union must take that stand.)

    Then yesterday I was reading the type of balanced statement that has become common in the Quick and the Ed, when I was pleasantly surprised to realize it was written by your most combative analyst. Kevin wrote:

    “Districts should also be allowed to opt out of strictly test-based accountability measures and instead present alternative, locally-developed assessments of student achievement in both core subjects and other vital skills like leadership and critical thinking. If achievement as measured by local assessments is good enough, then districts with low standardized test scores shouldn’t be identified for improvement or other other regulatory interventions.”

    So, why weren’t you standing with the Broader Bolder Challenge?

    Kevin wrote that he’s personally opposed to the local standards proposal, but he seemed willing to compromise on the issue that teachers find most ofensive. Had those words been enacted in NCLB I, I’d still be cautiously supportive of the law and I bet the majority of teachers would be also. It would not have given teachers a free ride. It actually would have opened another front, requiring us to pressure local and state authorities to take advantage of the autonomy, and to “do it right.”

    But the damage caused by the unintended effects of NCLB – damage that you have been acknowledging –
    would have been reduced. That would have freed us to do a better job with the resources provided by NCLB.

    I doubt David Brooks is aware of any of these details, but you know that he is wrong is saying that the 60 signers from the EPI represent the “status quo.” They are reformers who support a different set of reforms. And they have a variety of proposals for structural changes.

    You know that the counter-productive policies such as excessive test prep, narrowing of the curriculum, and Enron-like use of data, were not mandated by NCLB and they were not mandated by unions. It was the central administrative offices around the nation that imposed these failed policies. And yet you stand with administrators?

    Your web site is full of information about collaboration between unions and reformers. Your research, and the research of others, show that districts do not even have the capacity to use the power that has been granted by negotiated agreements.

    You, as opposed to the ideologues (including some who were on the stage) will not try to refute the arguments of the Broader Bolder Challenge. You, I anticipate, will limit your disagreements to the k-12 debate.

    And that is what they are, disagreements. You know that the 60 signers aren’t evil, anti-reform, defenders of the status quo. And they have a history of being much more flexible and willing to collaborate. So why not stand with, and compromise with, us?

    In fact, a compromise that would go a long way was articulated by, of all people, Kevin.

  5. Jal Mehta and John Thompson call for a compromise between what Brooks labeled the “reform” vs. “status quo” camps. In fact, this is exactly what eduwonk has called for himself – though without using such incendiary labels (blame Brooks’ faux pas on journalistic tendencies towards oversimplification perhaps…Ted Sizer and Arne Duncan = Status Quo? Really?)

    We must not forget that eduwonk’s central frustration with the “Bigger, Bolder, Better, Hotter, Wetter, etc” crowd is not their focus on external-to-school issues like health-care and housing, but their singular disregard for the importance of meaningful accountability for adults in the system. The compromise that Thompson calls for could be accomplished, it seems to me, if the so called “status quo” crowd would simply agree to the principle that adults should be held accountable for improving measurable student outcomes. We can debate – as Thompson does with Kevin – about what should be measured, or how to hold adults meaningfully accountable, but without this principle as a foundational tenet of “Bigger, Bolder”, the coalition’s calls for a focus on primarily improving out of school conditions looks largely like a smokescreen.

  6. Florida has managed to have a massive improvement in NAEP reading scores without massive new social programs, including for FRL kids.

    The That 70s Show crowd asserts that big improvements have not been done at scale, but Florida is more than big enough to qualify as improvement at scale.

    Much improvement is needed, but sitting around dreaming about seizing the Commanding Heights of the American economy as a school improvement strategy is an absurd cop-out.

    -Matthew Ladner

  7. I believe in accountability. In fact, I believe that NCLB supporters should be accountable for the poor outcomes from the expensive law they supported. They had a hypothesis that a national method of accountability using measurable results would improve education. If you take an open-minded look at the evidence, its hard to have much confidence in that hypothesis.

    As the Ed Sector has explained, there are several ways of removing ineffective teachers. We’d have no problem with a compromise which would fire (or counsel out of the profession)our worst teachers. We should do the same for our worse principals. Then as we recruit and retain talent, we could raise the accountability bar further.

    Matthew cites a success in Florida, which I question, but let’s look at the evidence, and let’s also do some introspection, and address a basic question.

    Why have people adopted accountability as the locomotive of educational change? Please, don’t just reply with a sound-bite. Can anyone remember when they first adopted their position on national test-driven accountability? What was the context? Why did it seem plausible that accountability could be so transformative.

    As I remember the 90s, we were all carried away with digital technolgy with some people claiming it had ended economic cycles. The military sought technological fixes that would allow us to “fight outnumbered and win.” Back then there were breathless claims that computers were more accurate diagnostians than doctors, and that the medical use of digital technolgy could be a model for other sectors. None of those sectors would defend their overly hopeful appraisals, and as Rothstein has documented, the trend today is towards data-driven decision-making and away from those top down mandates. So if the other sectors are holding themselves accountable and developing more realistic approaches to accountability, why can advocates of educational accountability?

    We opponents of NCLB-type accountablity are only drawing a line in the sand in regard to unreliable forms of over-reaching efforts to meet measurable goals. And if society showed more respect for teachers, I don’t think we would still be having this debate.

    Lawyers are accountable for their profession’s standards. Accountants are accountable for their standards. Different types of docters are accountable for the standards of their speciality. But how many people would enter those professions if they faced the arbitrary accountability of education, especially if they had no control over setting policies and procedures. What doctor would serve in an inner city emergency room if they had to meet the same measurable outcomes as the rest of the profession?

    If you want a compomise just drop the word measurable from your sentence, “simply agree to the principle that adults should be held accountable for improving measurable student outcomes.”

    If you won’t consider dropping that word, then please take my request seriously. Why are you so certain that national and measurable forms of accountability are a good idea?

  8. I feel so bad about the current state of the education system, and even though I don’t like talking about this stuff – as a former teacher who witnessed what’s actually going on with education in New York City, I would like to share what I know about it and what I learned. The two camps in the article unfortunately both have it wrong. The only – and I know that sounds bold, but the only problem I witnessed was a lack of institutional discipline regarding behavior of children, and the allowance of this behavior to absolutely destroy any real education from taking place. Sadly by holding teacher’s supposedly more accountable you end up holding children less accontable because teacher’s are scared to enforce the natural discipline required for kids to learn, because they are scard they will lose their job. This blame the teacher thing is bizarre consideriing these are people who actually were excited enough about teaching to go through the extensive qualification process. Society across the board has become discipline-less and this, also because of institutional fears of litigiousness, has sent the message to kids that they only have to learn if they feel like it. No one wants to hear that good old discipliner is the problem and that you actually have to force kids to learn in order that later on after gaining habits and a track record of success they may hopefully learn to love it. But the default mode for children, who are training to attain an identity , and don’t want to be threatened by doubt of who they are through potential failure, is always to avoid such work if possible, They whole system makes this entiey possible because it’s mis-directing accountability to teachers rather than the children themselves. This is painful stuff. No white politician iss going to want to talk about disciplining ethnic kids. So the problem continues and we hope that’s something else going on., and we indulge the worst kind of behaviors in a subtle kind of rascism that claims : they only can be this way because of where they’re from. Baloney. I was raised in the most mixed neighborhood in New York City you can imagiine, and I must tell you America, the jokes on you as far as what kids themselves fell they are getting away with – only to find later that the jokes on them because they were never compelled to learn with 0 tolerance for any behavior that would selfishly prevent the learning of everyone else oin the classroom. With Principle’s no longer having tenure they are completely loath to suspend kids – I witnessed this – and would actually keep them in the rooms in order to continue even mre disruption. As bizarre as it sounds – and even a surprise to me at the time – the more of this kind of accountability you institute the less accountable the children are. Children are so smart – and they learn so quickly that theyt don’t have to learn. America due to its continuing mis-understanding of race has such a long way to get this right. Hopefully though someone will talk to the record number of certified teacher’s who have left the New York Dept of Ed in recent years with stellar records why they have left. If you get them to really tell you the truth they will let you know : It’s was because of a lack of structural discipline and accountability of outrageous behaviors. Nothing else . Let’s stop looking at the experts who hypothesize andd actually asked the harvard graduates etc who went into teaching and left quickly if you need some kind of ivy league certification of this

    Thank you


  9. Matthhew,

    Thanks for the link. It showed great news in Math, which makes sense.

    But, the NAEP data you cite does not confirm your assertion. On the contrary it reveals several common patterns. Fristly, improvements were greater for 4th graders than 8th graders, providing more evidence that increased test scores are not necessarily an indication of increased learning – or at least the type of learning required by secondary schools or college. Secondly, Science scores were completely flat. If students are really gaining more numeracy, at some time shouldn’t it show up in science, just as increased reading scores should eventually increase social studies scores?

    Thirdly, 4th grade reading scores did increase by nearly 25% in the decade from 1992 to 2002. They have been flat since. Reading for 8th grade did increase from 23% Proficient in 1998 to 29% Proficient in 2002. Then they declined after NCLB. Even if you give the law a year to take effect, we still see the same pattern of huge increases before NCLB, and then scores flatten. I wonder if Florida fit into the larger pattern where NCLB may have helped increase scores in the middle while actually driving down scores of the lowest performing kids. Given the evidence, isn’t my hypothesis much more plausible than yours?

    So, what caused the increases, the measurable accountability regime or the prosperity of the 1990s? And how does that have any relevance to states that aren’t on the physical gateway to the global markets?


    You are right. And the vast majority of teachers would agree. But again that gets back to the disrespect of teaching. The more we teachers articulate these concerns, the more that theorists use our complaints about discipline as evidence that low expectations by teachers is the problem. Then they cite a few success stories where creaming has reduced the critical mass of challenging students.

    To oversimplify, which would produce more good for more students, a regime of measurable accountability, or creating the interventions, including alternative schools, that allow poor children to attend safe and ordely neighborhood schools where teaching talent is retained because teachers get to teach?

  10. John-

    I’m not sure what hypothesis you are attributing to me. Let me assure you that if it is one that holds that NCLB is responsible for the improvements in Florida, I don’t believe that.

    On 4th grade reading, Florida went from a mere 53% scoring basic or above in 1998 to 70% in 2007. The number of kids scoring at the advanced level doubled from 4% to 8%. That’s an amazing amount of progress.

    If you use the data cruncher at the bottom of the page and fish around a bit, you find that much of the aggregate progress was driven by Free and Reduced lunch eligible children, African-American children, and Hispanic children.

    Florida’s Hispanic children, after a decade of strong progress, now outscore the statewide averages for 15 states for all students on 4th grade reading. Florida’s Free and Reduced lunch eligible Hispanics outscore several statewide averages, including California.

    Florida isn’t yet competitive with our Asian and European competitors, but they have made a great deal of progress. Might point regarding the That 70s Show crowd, as Andy calls them, is they made this progress without the sort the social welfare agenda for which they call. Such an agenda is neither necessary nor sufficient to making progress in the schools.


  11. ML

    I was refrring to Florida’s prosperity, which you seem to agree was driven less by educational progress (still lagging behind …) than by location, location, location.

    If you look at the scores Above Basic for 8th graders, then they are still below 2002, dropping from 72% to 71.%

    As far social factors not being necessary and sufficient, you still haven’t refuted the more plausible explanation that scores rise and fall with the economy, and the jury is still out on the staying power of 4th grade scores.

    After all the effort and resources in schools, 72% of 8th graders are not proficient in reading. Combine a poor kid who is below proficient in reading with a stagnant economy, and what do you get?

    I’m not saying a social safety net is necessary and sufficient for closing the achievement gap. I’m saying schools alone can’t do it. If schools, teachers, the community, and the social safety net don’t hang together, then global market forces (and the supporters of markets alone) will help us hang separately.

  12. John-

    8th grade has been a tough nut to crack for all states, but there has been progress since 1998 in Florida. Not as much as you and I would like to see, but progress none the less.

    NAEP’s national scores have been mostly flat since the late 1960s, despite variations in the economy and a great deal more spending.

    When your Free and Reduced lunch Hispanic kids are outscoring multiple statewide averages, and your African-American kids are outscoring two statewide averages (LA and MS) after a decade of strong progress on 4th grade reading, you are making progress.


  13. NAEP scores weren’t flat in the 1990s Boom were they?

    And honestly I don’t blame NCLB for the drop in 2002 or 2003. OVERNIGHT January 2002, all of our school’s problems increased in intensity. As the Economists are deciding whether to label a downturn, families are getting hit, and kids bring the trauma to school.

    And I agree that 8th grade is hard. But that’s my point. Schools alone haven’t shown any indication that they can solve it.

    Economic and education correlations are tough because we are dividing into two economies. While many were prospering in the 1980s, Oklahoma was closer to a depression than a recession. Along with West Virginia, we lost 10% of our jobs in 1983 and 6% in 1991. If all those empty warehouses in my school’s attendance areas were still open and employing people, our challenge would be much more managable. Average stats may be up because society gave billions to corporations to subsidize their relocation to the exurbs.

    But again here’s my point. Given the qualifications that we have both made in regard to our arguments here, why can’t we agree to disgree on measurable accountability. We could unite on the Bigger Bolder Broader agenda, and then debate accountability. And like I said, I’d love allies in helping us terminate ineefective teachers and administrators, and to create conditions where we can have safe and orderly schools.

  14. John-

    I don’t believe that flucatuations in the economy have anywhere near the influence on NAEP scores that you seem to posit. The problem has been that they are flat despite higher spending, not that they wildly gyrate.

    I view the Bigger Bolder agenda as a Bigger Bolder Cop Out that makes a false claim, which is that we can’t make much progress absent adopting their larger social agenda.

    When Free and Reduced lunch Hispanic kids are outscoring the statewide averages of states with lots of social welfare spending like California, and coming within easy striking distance of lilly-white, wealthy and progressive states like Oregon, its time to emulate those reforms. Instead, the That 70s Show crew pines for the White Knight of Social Welfarism to save the day for schooling.

    We are either serious about getting value for the $10,000 per year per child that we put into public education, or we are not. I am bewildered by the notion that we shouldn’t expect a 4th grader to be able to read at a basic level after investing somewhere between $40k to $50k in the early grades in their education.

    If the That 70s Crowd says “we can’t do better until you put in even more money” it displays nothing more than a lack of serious committment to education reform. Society has a number of other competing priorities, including higher education, health care, social welfare, transportation and criminal justice.

    After decades of failing to spend our way out of our education problems, the Bigger Bolder crowd wants yet more of the same. There is nothing the least bit serious or admirable about this.


  15. I don’t “posit” the instant effect of economic downturns, I see it, I’ve lived it, and I think I’m seeing the rerun. (back when I was first immersed in the suffering, it was the Keating Five, as well as fraudalent oil boom operations, and the Reagon HUD scandal, that turned my neighborhood into a ghetto. Now its … If schools alone can repair that human damage, they should be giving us several multiples of today’s spending.)

    And in Oklahoma we don’t get anywhere near $10,000 per kid; its more like $7000. Which gets back to the problem of national solutions imposed on the variety of economic situations.

    I’ll promise to check out your data on FRL and I think I can read it with an open mind. But in return, let’s not disparage the 60 distinguished signers.

  16. The Census has Oklahoma at about $8,000 per pupil in revenue, so you are in the right ballpark. For a kid reaching the end of the 4th grade and starting in the public system in kindergarten, that’s still $40,000. Thirty-five percent of Oklahoma 4th graders score below basic on NAEP reading.

    Your offer is a reasonable one, though, and I will be glad to take it. We will always have limited resources, and I confess to frustration with those whose first priority seems not to be to improve the efficacy of our current level of spending.


  17. Actually, I’d like the first priority of reformers to be more efficient and practical, and that’s not too distant of a cousin to efficacy, so again we almost agree.

    If I had my druthers, I take all of the theories and flush them down a toilet. In every school, I’d have a Union Building Rep and the Principal take a daily tour of the building. They would identify problems and then take practical steps to improve.

    Its not a viable political approach, but it is an interesting “thought experiment.”

    I’m glad we’re up approaching $8000. I’ve been focusing on local and national issues and didn’t even notice that we were denied a raise this year in an oil producing state. Before NCLB, we spent about $5,500 per student. If you think historically, and add up the effect of the annual shortfall and its effects over the generations, then you get a reminder the extent of our problems. If we have been shortchanging students by several thousands of dollars a year over the decades, those children are now the parents and grandparents of today’s students.

  18. School failure begins early. Why not have basic standards/expectations at the ends of kindergarten, 1st & 2nd grades prior to the BIG grade 3 or 4 NCLB ratings. At the end of Gr. 1, for example, the standard 40 years ago was to read orally at 80 words per minute (now down to 60 WPM). By mid first-grade the teachers know who is struggling. Invest early. We have amazing kindergarten programs 50% of pupils scoring in the top quartile on the Metropolitan Readiness Test6.
    Schools are a cottage industry in the USA, with everyone reinventing the wheel. Why not have a national registry where every school problem that has been solved could be accessed and shared. Young teachers have no idea that answers exist for every problem–some answers are a century old.
    RE the problems with Afro-American Boys, military schools curricula with martial discipline works to overcome their total lack of experience with compliance. Every problem has been solved, so lets match problems to answers.

    Lyelle Palmer, SMART K-3 program
    Minnesota Learning Resource Center,

  19. Has Mr. Thompson ever considered if the school districts and the unions are part of the problem?

  20. John Thompson said …

    In every school, I’d have a Union Building Rep and the Principal take a daily tour of the building. They would identify problems and then take practical steps to improve.
    What are the chances that the union rep would, for example, point to union teachers and say that they were the problem?

  21. As Al Shanker said, the only people hurt worse by bad teachers than the students are the teachers who have to clean up after them. Bad teachers cause as much headaches for the union as anything. Union reps can and do give advice to principals about crossing their t’s and dotting there i’s during due process. In my experience, administrators don’t take our advice enough because of control issues.

    I see two ways towards improvements. Firstly, central offices take take up our proposals like the Toledo Plan, and we can negotiate better ways of evaluating and mentoring teachers, and more efficient methods of terminating bad teachers. We also need more efficient methods of terminating bad principals. But we need to approach this with open eyes. No matter how many teachers and principals we terminate, we won’t be able to replace them in high poverty neighborhood schools until we improve their school climate.

    Secondly, we need to look at evaluation of principals. In scxhools like mine, even the best are so overwhelmed that they go weeks at a time without having a chance for classroom instruction to enter their minds. The biggest reason, by far, is the lack of alternative schools that allow for a credible assessment of disciplinary consequences. Principals who are always chasing their tails do to our “catch and release” disciplinary policies. They spend the majority of their time cajoling and bluffing students who are chronically disruptive.

    Outsiders should keep this in mind when they read about the occassional high poverty, high performing school. They have plenty of alternative slots; those alternative slots are called neighborhood schools. When a student at our KIPP School threatens a teacher, how long does it take for the offender to be bounced into my school, Centennial? The principal at the lower poverty school next to mine school has a catchy saying for the students, “You want to be ghetto. Fine. We’ll send you back to Centennial.”

    Which gets us back to ineffective teachers. The termination process is not that hard. But why should a principal who is already working more than 90 hours a week take on a new task when he probably won’t be able to find a competent replacement? In my experience, principals would be happy to take up the union’s offer to negotiate more efficient termination processes. Its the central offices, that tend to be divorced from reality, that do not want to give up control.

    Regardless, the Toledo Plan would efficiently allow us to terminate, or counsel out of the profession, the worst 10%, and keep the worst 10% of new teachers from becoming tenured. Getting rid of the worst of any group would give you the biggest bang for the buck. After taking that relatively easy first step, we could then move on to the more complicated steps.

    But I’ve got to say that I get a weird feeling when addressing those issues because they are so far away from my personal experience. I have never seen a union rep who tries to save bad teachers or defends teachers who resist reforms. We’ve made a conscious decision to minmize our legal costs by investing in relationship-building and problem-solving. I see union leaders who are trying to persuade the rank-in-file to be more collaborative. Building reps are continually encouraged to build cooperative relationships with principals, to be a source of honest expertise, and to help the union fight for kids. Building Reps aren’t all perfect, but my union does everything it can to be collaborative.

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