[Marxism] Good take-down of charter school backer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 11 09:28:22 MDT 2011


Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Steven Brill Thinks So
Dana Goldstein | August 10, 2011

Steven Brill, the journalist and media entrepreneur, has come a 
long way since he helicoptered onto the education beat in 2009.
That’s when The New Yorker published Brill’s exposé of the New 
York City “rubber rooms,” where the Department of Education parked 
the one-twentieth of 1 percent of the city’s 80,000 public school 
teachers—about forty people—who had been accused of gross 
negligence and removed from the classroom. As they awaited the due 
process hearings guaranteed in their union contracts, rubber room 
teachers received full pay and benefits, sometimes for up to three 

The article sparked outrage among readers, who were appalled that 
millions of tax dollars were spent annually paying the salaries 
and arbitrating the cases of teachers who came to work inebriated 
or practiced corporal punishment. Despite the fact that the 
Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers 
shared responsibility for creating the clumsy and cumbersome 
arbitration process, Brill laid the blame solely at the union’s 

He followed up with his hyperbolically titled May 2010 New York 
Times Magazine feature “The Teachers’ Unions Last Stand,” which 
admired the Obama administration’s attempt to pressure states to 
tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ standardized test 
scores. The article lavishly praised nonunionized charter schools 
while entirely blaming teachers unions for the achievement gap 
between poor and middle-class students.

Together, the two pieces had the kind of impact most journalists 
can only dream of. Rubber room teachers were reassigned to desk 
jobs, and their arbitrations were sped up. More significant, 
Brill’s framing of the education debate, borrowed from reformers 
like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee—teachers unions vs. poor 
kids—infiltrated the popular consciousness more deeply than it had 
before, presaging the September 2010 release of the pro–charter 
school, anti–teachers union documentary Waiting for Superman. 
Brill began to appear on panels with key figures in the education 
debate, including American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president 
Randi Weingarten and Harlem Children’s Zone President and CEO 
Geoffrey Canada. And he embarked on an ambitious book project: a 
comprehensive history and analysis of the 
standards-and-accountability school reform movement called Class 
Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.

Not surprisingly, given Brill’s history of interest in only the 
most controversial school reform issues, the book is filled with 
misleading discussions of complex education research, most notably 
a total elision of the fact that “nonschool” factors—family 
income, nutrition, health, English-language proficiency and the 
like—affect children’s academic performance, no matter how great 
their teachers are. (More on this later.) Class Warfare is also 
studded with easy-to-check errors, such as the claim that Newark 
schools spend more per student than New York City schools because 
of a more cumbersome teachers’ contract. In fact, the New Jersey 
Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that the state must provide 
supplemental per-pupil funding to all high-poverty school 
districts, including Newark. As a result, New Jersey is considered 
a national leader in early childhood education, and Newark 
graduates more African-American boys from high school—75 
percent—than any other major city.

But here’s the thing: by the closing chapters of his breezy, 
478-page tome, Brill sounds far less like an uncritical fan of 
charter school expansion, Teach for America (TFA) and unionbusting 
and far more like, well, a guy who has spent several years 
immersed in one of the thorniest policy conversations in America, 
thinking about a problem—educational inequality—that defies 
finger-pointing and simple solutions.

Welcome to the beat, Brill!

One of Class Warfare’s stars, a charter school assistant principal 
named Jessica Reid, unexpectedly quits her job at Eva Moskowitz’s 
Harlem Success Academy in the middle of the school year; the 
charter chain’s rigorous demands pushed the 28-year-old Reid, a 
dedicated and charismatic educator, to the brink of a nervous 
breakdown and divorce. “This wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms 
of my health and my marriage,” she tells Brill, who concludes that 
he agrees (at least in part) with education historian and charter 
school critic Diane Ravitch. You can’t staff a national public 
school system of 3.2 million teachers, Ravitch tells Brill, with 
Ivy Leaguers willing to run themselves ragged for two years. Most 
of these folks won’t move on to jobs at traditional public 
schools, as the uncommonly committed Jessica Reid did, but will 
simply leave the classroom altogether and head to politics, 
business or law, where they’ll be paid more to do prestigious 
work, often with shorter, less pressure-filled hours.

That’s the model of Teach for America, of course, another school 
reform organization with which Brill is somewhat frustrated by the 
end of his book. He comes to grasp the fundamental problem with 
TFA’s conception of the teacher pipeline: Let’s say the 
lowest-performing 10 percent of career teachers—320,000 people—are 
fired. How will we replace them? TFA will contribute only about 
9,300 corps members to the nation’s schools in the coming school 
year; even if every graduate of a selective college entered 
teaching—and some would surely be terrible teachers—we’d still 
have a shortage. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was “actually 
making an important point,” Brill concedes, when he said, “You 
can’t fire your way to the top.”

Faced with these complexities, Brill comes up with a strange 
conclusion: Maybe New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg should give 
Randi Weingarten control of the city schools in a “Nixon goes to 
China” move. If she were responsible for student achievement 
instead of teacher job security, Brill suggests, the labor leader 
would be forced to push union members harder to prioritize 
instructional excellence and embrace tenure reform.

But in fact, the sea change in union attitudes that Brill believes 
can only be achieved by this unlikely move has already taken 
place. The AFT and, more recently, the National Education 
Association have accepted the fundamental premise of tying teacher 
evaluation to student performance. The details need to be worked 
out in statehouses and school districts across the country—the 
most controversial issue, and rightly so, is the role that data 
from standardized tests will play. Nevertheless, the unions’ 
evolution into more student-achievement-focused organizations is, 
at this point, foreordained. In Colorado last year, the local AFT 
affiliate even supported legislation that requires student 
achievement data to account for 51 percent of a teachers’ 
evaluation score. Colorado teachers who receive a bad evaluation 
two years in a row will now lose their tenure protections.

* * *

All that said, it is truly ignorant to reduce school reform to a 
labor-management question. States with teacher collective 
bargaining routinely outperform right-to-work states academically, 
and teachers are unionized in most of the nations—such as Finland, 
Canada and France—whose kids kick our kids’ butts on international 

School reform is just as much about the three Cs: curriculum (what 
knowledge and skills students actually learn); counseling (how we 
prepare young people, professionally and socially, for adult 
life); and civics (whether we teach students how to participate in 
American democracy).

Brill never mentions any of this. Class Warfare is built around 
the idea of children, particularly poor children, as 
test-score-producing machines, with little to no attention paid to 
other aspects of their personalities or lives. The book’s heroes 
are philanthropists, school administrators, policy wonks and 
politicians. We meet few students or parents.

Most pernicious is Brill’s repeated claim that the effects of 
poverty can be not only mitigated but completely beaten back by 
good teachers. “A snowballing network of education reformers 
across the country…were producing data about how teaching counted 
more than anything else,” Brill writes in the book’s opening 
pages. Later, he devotes a chapter to economists Thomas Kane and 
Douglas Staiger, whose work on value-added teacher evaluation has 
powerfully influenced Bill Gates’s education philanthropy. “It 
wasn’t that poverty or other factors didn’t affect student 
performance,” Brill summarizes. “Rather, it was that teacher 
effectiveness could overcome those disadvantages” (emphasis added).

In fact, the work of the many researchers Brill approvingly 
cites—including Kane, Staiger and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek—shows 
that while teaching is the most important in-school factor 
affecting student achievement, family and neighborhood 
characteristics matter more. The research consensus has been clear 
and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts 
for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while 
socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.

It is tiring to make this point over and over again. The usual 
rebuttal is that determining exactly how much teachers matter is 
irrelevant, because they are one of the only levers in a poor 
child’s life over which school systems exert some control. This is 
true, and it’s a fine argument for focusing education policy 
efforts on sustainable teacher quality reforms, such as recruiting 
more academically talented young people into the profession, 
requiring new teachers to undergo significant apprenticeship 
periods working alongside master educators, and creating career 
ladders that reward excellent teachers who agree to stay in the 
classroom long-term and mentor their peers. This is what such 
high-performing nations as China and Finland do; they don’t, à la 
Teach for America, encourage 21-year-olds with five weeks of 
summer training to swoop into the classroom and swoop out again.

But because we know, without a doubt, that family poverty exerts a 
crushing influence over children’s lives, it is no small thing 
when standards-and-accountability education reformers repeat, ad 
nauseam, that poverty can be totally “overcome” by dedicated 
teachers. Of course, we all know people who grew up poor and went 
on to lead successful, financially remunerative lives. Many of 
them feel grateful to educators who eased their paths. But the 
fact remains that in the United States in 2011, beating the odds 
of poverty has become far less likely than ever, and teacher 
quality has less to do with it than does economic inequality—a 
dearth of good jobs, affordable housing, healthcare, childcare and 
higher education.

Advances in cognitive science have made it possible to pinpoint 
how these disadvantages hinder children academically. One-fifth of 
the middle schoolers in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, 
entered kindergarten in 2003 suffering from some level of lead 
poisoning, which disproportionately affects the poor and is 
associated with intellectual delays and behavioral problems such 
as ADHD. “It is now understood that there is no safe level of lead 
in the human body,” writes education researcher David Berliner, 
“and that lead at any level has an impact on IQ.”

Food insecurity is similarly correlated with cognitive delays, and 
rising in incidence across the country—more than 17 million 
American children consistently lack access to healthy, nutritious 
meals. Here’s how a team of Harvard School of Public Health 
researchers describe the relationship between hunger and student 

     When children attend school inadequately nourished, their 
bodies conserve the limited food energy that is available. Energy 
is first reserved for critical organ functions. If sufficient 
energy remains, it then is allocated for growth. The last priority 
is for social activity and learning. As a result, undernourished 
children become more apathetic and have impaired cognitive 
capacity. Letting schoolchildren go hungry means that the nation’s 
investments in public education are jeopardized by childhood 

Acknowledging connections between the economy, poverty, health and 
brain function is not an attempt to “excuse” failing school 
bureaucracies and classroom teachers; rather, it is a necessary 
prerequisite for authentic school reform, which must be based on a 
realistic assessment of the whole child—not just a child’s test 
scores. Successful education reform efforts—such as the Harlem 
Children’s Zone, which provides “wraparound” social and health 
services alongside charter schools, or California’s Linked 
Learning schools, which connect teenagers to meaningful on-the-job 
training—are built on this more holistic understanding of the 
forces that shape a child’s life and determine her future.

Brill and the accountability crowd are correct to note that 
high-performing teachers are consistently able to raise the test 
scores of even the poorest children. Research shows that an 
improvement of one standard deviation in teacher quality leads to 
approximately two to four points of gain for a student on a 
100-point test in reading or math. Five years of great teachers in 
a row, therefore, could raise a student’s test scores by ten to 
twenty points.

Whether this potential growth is incidental or transformative 
depends on where a student starts out: if he began at the 
twentieth percentile in reading, he’d still be failing; a jump 
from the seventieth percentile to the ninetieth could make him a 
candidate for selective colleges. Unfortunately, as Paul Tough 
demonstrated in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, at far too 
many “miracle” inner-city schools, the vast majority of 
students—despite impressive test-score growth—continue to score 
below proficiency in reading and math. These students may graduate 
from high school, but they are unprepared for college or work 
beyond the service sector.

Honest reformers are all too aware of this problem. As KIPP 
charter school co-founder Dave Levin tells Brill, “I’m still 
failing.” Indeed, only one-third of the KIPP network’s high school 
graduates are able to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. 
This is a remarkable achievement in a country where only 30 
percent of all young adults—regardless of family background—hold a 
college degree. It’s also a reminder of how very difficult it is 
to make huge leaps and bounds in closing the achievement gap. 
After all, a full 75 percent of the highest-income high school 
graduates are able to earn that BA by age 24.

* * *

Although Brill, by the end of Class Warfare, comes to recognize 
the limits of the education reform movement he so admires, he 
somehow maintains his commitment to the idea that teachers can 
completely overcome poverty. There’s a reason, I think, why this 
ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school 
founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney 
Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the 
United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at 
the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then 
perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about 
inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the 
superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and 
food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost 
as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar 
benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the 
suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are 
not like them.

The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. 
Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services 
reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their 
brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant 
fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them.

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