[Marxism] Good take-down of charter school advocate's book

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 21 07:58:10 MDT 2011

(A pleasant surprise given the Sunday Times Book Review neocon slant.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review August 18, 2011
Steve Brill’s Report Card on School Reform

Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools
By Steven Brill
478 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.

Steven Brill is a graduate of Yale Law School and the founder of Court 
TV, and in his new book, “Class Warfare,” he brings a sharp legal mind 
to the world of education reform. Like a dogged prosecutor, he mounts a 
zealous case against America’s teachers’ unions. From more than 200 
interviews, he collects the testimony of idealistic educators, charter 
school founders, policy gurus, crusading school superintendents and 
billionaire philanthropists. Through their vivid vignettes, which he 
pieces together in short chapters with titles like “ ‘Colorado Says Half 
of You Won’t Graduate’ ” and “A Shriek on Park Avenue,” Brill conveys 
the epiphanies, setbacks and triumphs of a national reform movement.

Some of his subjects, like Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, are by now 
household names; others, like Jon Schnur, an adviser to the Clinton and 
Obama administrations, are more obscure. But in Brill’s telling, they 
have all come, over some two decades, to distrust or denounce the unions 
and to promote the same small set of reforms: increasing the number of 
charter schools and evaluating and improving teacher quality through 
merit pay and other measures that rely heavily on student test scores.

Throughout, Brill reminds us he’s just an objective reporter. 
Disinterested, however, is not how he comes across. He recounts an 
educator’s motto to “teach like your hair’s on fire.” For most of the 
book, Brill writes like his hair is on fire. His sympathies clearly lie 
with the unions’ most adamant critics, like Michelle Rhee, the 
controversial former superintendent of the District of Columbia public 
schools, and Joel Klein, the combative ex-chancellor of the New York 
City system.

I say this as someone whom Brill might pick for a jury pool. I taught 
for three years in New York as a charter member of Teach for America and 
had my own run-ins with the union. (An article I wrote, which praised 
Kopp’s then-­fledgling organization and made some of the same criticisms 
Brill does, angered my union representative.) This fall, my daughter 
will be attending public school, and I’ll be teaching at a private, 
reform-­minded urban academy in New Jersey.

Yet, after reading “Class Warfare,” I can’t convict — not least of all 
because in the book’s final chapter, Brill undercuts much of his 
witnesses’ prior testimony in an abrupt and jarring about-face. This 
chapter isn’t wrong. But it underscores a truth Brill spends most of the 
book trying to avoid: his case is not airtight, and reasonable doubts 
remain about his subjects’ prescriptions for reform.

Brill’s book grew out of a 2009 New Yorker article about New York’s 
“rubber rooms,” where some 600 teachers facing disciplinary review had 
languished, for three years on average, collecting full salaries and 
accruing pension benefits as their cases snaked through the 
labyrinthine, contractually mandated system for terminating employees. 
Although these men and women represented a minuscule fraction of the 
city’s 89,000 teachers (and the rubber rooms have since been closed), 
Brill rightly argues in “Class Warfare” that rules for dismissing 
ineffective or even grossly negligent teachers are sometimes absurdly 
onerous, time consuming and costly to many schools. As he notes, even 
Albert Shanker, for decades the renowned president of the American 
Federation of Teachers, used to argue that unions had a vested interest 
in ridding their ranks of incompetence. Still, until the country’s 
recent economic collapse, New York’s problem wasn’t just getting rid of 
teachers; it was also retaining them. Roughly 20 percent quit after 
their first year alone, and 40 percent after just three years in the system.

Yet Brill wants us to believe that unions are the primary — even sole — 
cause of failing public schools. But hard evidence for this is scarce. 
Many of the nation’s worst-performing schools (according to the National 
Assessment of Educational Progress) are concentrated in Southern and 
Western right-to-work states, where public sector unions are weakest and 
collective bargaining enjoys little or no protection. Also, if unions 
are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious 
effect similarly felt in many middle-­class suburbs, like Pelham, N.Y., 
or Montclair, N.J., which have good schools — and strong unions?

More problematic for Brill’s thesis, charter schools, which are 
typically freed from union rules, haven’t succeeded in the ways their 
champions once hoped. A small percentage are undeniably superb. But most 
are not. One particularly rigorous 2009 study, which surveyed 
approximately half of all charters nationwide and was financed by the 
pro-­charter Walton Family and Michael and Susan Dell Foundations, found 
that more than 80 percent either do no better, or actually perform 
substantially worse, than traditional public schools, a dismal record. 
The study concluded that “tremendous variation in academic quality among 
charters is the norm, not the exception.”

Brill obliquely refers to such research in half a sentence. He then 
counters that other studies have shown better results for charters, 
without clearly indicating what these studies are or explaining why they 
should trump a comprehensive, national study. He then points to the 
“central evidentiary value” of the Knowledge is Power Program, KIPP, the 
chain of roughly 100 charter schools, founded by two Teach for America 
alumni, that has produced consistently high student test scores and 
become a media darling. Yet such exceptions to the rule still don’t 
explain why, if unions are the crucial variable, a vast majority of 
charters haven’t equally thrived.

At the heart of Brill’s book is a belief that “truly effective teaching” 
can “overcome student indifference, parental disengagement and poverty.” 
For too long, Brill’s reformers argue, union leaders have used such 
factors to excuse failing teachers protected by tenure. Certainly many 
adults, not just those in unions, have written off economically 
disadvantaged or minority students far too readily.

Brill cites policy advocates who argue that students who have top 
quartile teachers several years in a row could (at least theoretically) 
make remarkable gains. Absent other proven criteria for determining the 
most effective teachers, these reformers conclude that schools should 
base hiring, firing and promotion decisions, at least in substantial 
part, on teachers’ ability to generate year-to-year gains on their 
students’ test scores.

Brill, however, glosses over an important qualifier to such research. 
Teacher quality may be the most important variable within schools, but 
mountains of data, going back decades, demonstrates that most of the 
variation in student performance is explained by nonschool factors: not 
just poverty, but also parental literacy (and whether parents read to 
their children), student health, frequent relocations, crime-­related 
stress and the like.

Brill extols the recent documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” which 
argues that better teachers are the key to boosting achievement. But 
surprisingly, what we see in the movie aren’t so much good teachers as 
academically effective parents: mothers and fathers who, despite 
difficult circumstances, read with their children, push them to do their 
homework and actively seek out exceptional charters, which (unlike the 
mediocre or failing ones) are oversubscribed and thus rely on lotteries 
with long odds for admission.

Yet to Brill and the filmmakers, these parents’ love, sweat and tears 
must be irrelevant, because what really matters is the quality of a 
child’s teacher. To prove the point, Brill cites one study that shows 
that students who won the lottery subsequently performed better in 
school than those who lost. “Same demographics, same motivation, 
different result,” he concludes.

But this argument ignores the aggregate effect of student and parental 
attitudes. Children who don’t win a coveted spot at a program like KIPP 
don’t just miss the charter’s arguably better teachers; they also lose 
out on the self-­reinforcing atmosphere of success and striving that 
comes from attending a school where everyone — or at least most students 
and parents — has demonstrated an especially deep commitment to 
learning. At KIPP, for example, students go to school longer each day, 
each year, and also attend classes on alternating Saturdays and in the 
summers. Families that don’t embrace this ethos leave or can be asked to 
leave, an option not available to regular public schools.

If you don’t believe me, believe Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the 
Harlem Children’s Zone, who is featured in “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” and 
whom Brill lionizes. In Paul Tough’s laudatory book “Whatever It Takes: 
Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” (2008), Canada 
decries KIPP’s approach as a kind of reverse “quarantine, walling off 
the most promising kids from a sick neighborhood’s contagion,” in 
Tough’s paraphrase. In fact, though Brill and the filmmakers never 
acknowledge it, Canada’s philosophy is actually diametrically opposed to 
KIPP’s. Canada insists such charters can’t succeed, at least not with 
all inner-city children, including those who may be disaffected from 
school, without substantially increased investments in wraparound social 
services, which Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone provides.

Brill, however, insists that only “union critics of charter schools” 
believe successful charters “ ‘skim’ from the community’s most 
intelligent students and committed families,” adding, “None of the 
actual data supports this.” But in fact, according to Tough, KIPP’s own 
“internal statistics” show that its students in the South Bronx “arrived 
scoring better on average on tests than typical children in their 
neighborhoods.” And not just a little better: on reading tests prior to 
entering KIPP, Tough writes, “students often scored above the average 
for the entire city.”

KIPP then builds on this sturdy foundation — and far more successfully 
than most charters, for which it deserves praise and keen attention to 
its methods. But KIPP and other successful charters have not yet shown 
they can succeed with every kind of student within a single school 
district, or even, for that matter, a single neighborhood. If we can’t 
make such distinctions, how will we ever help all children achieve?

Brill adeptly shows how ideas can become a movement. Many of his 
subjects met in Teach for America, went on to promote one another’s 
hiring or research and are now being financed by the Bill and Melinda 
Gates Foundation. But what Brill regards as the groundswell of a welcome 
revolution begins to sound worryingly like an echo chamber, with 
everyone talking to the same few people and reading the same e-mail blasts.

Thanks to these reformers’ coordinated push, their agenda is now driving 
President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. As Brill reports, 
educators supporting different, equally plausible reforms were 
discouraged from competing for the contest’s unprecedented $4.35 billion 
in funding. By design, judges could award points only to those proposals 
that advanced charters (despite their mixed record) and used student 
test scores to evaluate teacher performance (in a still-unproven 

This unwillingness to entertain other reforms, I think, is partly what 
has animated some of the movement’s critics, like the education 
historian Diane Ravitch, who recently reversed her longstanding support 
for high-stakes testing and charters (and whom Brill dismisses in just 
four pages, much of which he devotes not to the substance of her 
arguments but to distracting questions about whether she has ever 
accepted speaking fees from unions). The problem isn’t just that the 
hard evidence, looked at dispassionately, doesn’t always support 
reformers’ claims. It’s that the insurgents are in danger of becoming 
the very thing they once (rightly) rose up against: subject to 
groupthink, reluctant to hear opposing views or to work with anyone 
perceived to be on the other side.

At times, I couldn’t help wishing Brill had concentrated less on his 
reformers’ similarities than on their differences. According to him, Eli 
Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who has helped bankroll Teach for 
America, regards Randi Weingarten, the president of the American 
Federation of Teachers, with admirable pragmatism, as someone he can 
work with. Bill Gates decided not to back Michelle Rhee’s reforms in 
Washington because he regarded her as too much of a “bomb thrower.” 
Gates also expresses wise frustration that none of Brill’s favorite data 
crunchers can actually explain what an effective teacher looks like. 
(Toward this end, Doug Lemov of the Uncommon Schools charter network has 
promisingly begun videotaping and analyzing top teachers to identify 
concrete tools educators can use to improve.)

By book’s end, even Brill begins to feel the cognitive dissonance. He 
quotes a KIPP founder who concedes that the program relies on superhuman 
talent that can never be duplicated in large numbers. And sure enough, 
an educator whom Brill has held up the entire book as a model of reform 
unexpectedly quits, citing burnout and an unsustainable workload at her 
Harlem charter. Then another reform-­minded teacher at the same school 
confesses she can’t possibly keep up the pace. “This model just cannot 
scale,” she declares flatly. After relentlessly criticizing Weingarten, 
Brill suddenly suggests, in a “Nixon-to-China” move, that she become New 
York’s next schools chancellor. “The lesson,” Brill belatedly discovers, 
is that reformers need to collaborate with unions, if only because they 
are “the organizational link to enable school improvement to expand 
beyond the ability of the extraordinary people to work extraordinary 
hours.” But isn’t this merely what the reform movement’s more thoughtful 
critics have been saying all along?

Brill likens the battle over the nation’s schools to “warfare,” but the 
better analogy may be to the war on cancer. For years, scientists hoped 
a magic pill would cure this ravaging disease. But increasingly, doctors 
have recognized that they will have to fight a multifronted war, as 
cancers (like failing schools) aren’t all alike. Each comes with its own 
complex etiology. Improving teacher quality and working to create better 
schools, like charters, are part of the arsenal. But such efforts, 
alone, are unlikely to boost long-term survival rates without a 
continual, dispassionate look at the incoming data, no matter how 
counterintuitive, and a willingness to revise tactics midtreatment as we 
pursue multiple paths in a race for the cure. Although Brill doesn’t say 
so until the book’s last few pages, he finally acknowledges just how 
much we still have to learn.

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