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Critique of Steven Brill’s Class Warfare Book

September 29, 2011

Valerie Strauss has an excellent critique of Steven Brill’s: Class Warfare Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.  In her missive she notes how the first few hundred pages don’t square with the concluding chapter which debunks much of the pages which were previously written.

I have noticed the quality of the “reformer” set to deny evidence that good peer reviewed studies produce, such as how poverty and environment are a major predictor of student achievement.  Strauss notices this as well in this article which is highly recommended reading.

An ed reform book not really about education

For those who don’t remember the Bobby Ewing letdown in the Dallastelevision series, let me summarize: Back in the 1980s, the actor who played Bobby left the show and his character was killed, presenting a problem a year later when he decided to return. The writers dealt with the dilemma by declaring the entire 1985-86 season of storylines a dream sequence. In other words: Never mind.

That’s what came to mind when I got to the last chapter of Steven Brill’sbook “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, ” which has received a lot of attention in school reform circles because Brill — an author, entrepreneur and founder of the Yale (University) Journalism Initiative — is a significant presence in that world and because his narrative centers on the central reform movement players (Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, etc.).

Why did I think of Dallas when I finished the last chapter, called “A Marathon, Not a Sprint?”

Brill spends hundreds of pages attacking unions as ignoring the needs of children and, more personally, questions the motivations of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, calling her untruthful.

But then in that last chapter he says that Weingarten should be immediately appointed chancellor of New York City public schools, the largest system in the country. (Incidentally, my colleague Jay Mathewswrote a piece in 2009 recommending her as the successor to then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.)

And after portraying as heroes school reformers who make little secret of wanting to take down the teachers unions, he says in that last chapter that, after all, school reform can’t really happen without bringing the unions into the process and that efforts by Republican governors to strip them of their collective bargaining rights have gone too far.

And after chronicling the truly terrific efforts a young charter school teacher makes to be successful in her job at the Harlem Success Academy, and portraying her as a model for the profession, he reveals in that last chapter that she quit her job at the Harlem Success Academy because the in­cred­ibly long hours were “unsustainable.”

A reader might ask: Wouldn’t these conclusions have had some effect on the hundreds of pages of narrative before them?

The book’s editor(s) easily might not have known that Brill accepts as definitive education research that is highly controversial (about, for example, teacher evaluation).

Or that he ignores evidence that doesn’t square with his beliefs (about, for example, the effects of living in poverty on student achievement).

Or that he paints an overly optimistic picture of the success of charter schools. (For example, he extols the rising achievement on tests of New Orleans students in the majority-charter Recovery School Districtwithout mentioning the lawsuit filed over the inability of special education students to find charter schools that will take them, or the change in demographics that saw many of the city’s poorest residents–the ones most likely to perform badly on tests–not return home after Hurricane Katrina.)

Or that he perpetuates the mistaken notion that teachers are the single more important factor on student achievement (which may be true in school but ignores the power of outside influences).

Or that he fails to mention that for all the talk of problems with unions, the fact is the same problems with student achievement are found in states with teachers unions — and without them. (Which is not to say that unions haven’t engaged in some inexcusable practices.)

But still, one wonders why the editor didn’t tell Brill that the book’s construct is more than problematic.

There are some interesting takeaways from the book, the most important, perhaps, being the recurring reminders of how Democrats and Republicans have come to align on reform issues as well as the descriptions of the deep connections among the big names in education reform — Rhee, Klein, Arne Duncan, Wendy Kopp, Jon Schnur, Whitney Tilson, Eli Broad, Cory Booker, etc. — and their links to Barack Obama.

Obama, it turns out, was on board with the reform movement as a first-term Illinois senator, far earlier than many of his supporters in the 2008 presidential campaign understood. Obama, we learn, helped launch a group called Democrats for Education Reform on June 3, 2005, when he was a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois and went to New York for some fund raising.

As a senator in 2006, Obama sponsored legislation to provide federal funds to school districts that agreed to link teachers’ salaries and promotions to the scores their students got on standardized tests. The bill went nowhere then, but the Obama administration has made a big, successful push to get states to do this — even though leading experts on testing say there is no reliable and valid method of doing that right now. (Whether Obama knows that in pursuit of this goal, school districts are adding new standardized tests in subjects beyond math and reading — one district tested with students 52 new exams this past spring — is unclear.)

Democrats for Education Reform, meanwhile, was organized by men with hedge-fund wealth with the aim of electing into political office Democrats who had embraced the school reform agenda — test-driven accountability, charter schools, etc. — that had been long pushed by Republicans. Brill makes clear the real influence on federal education policy of the organization, which most Americans have likely never heard of.

The cozy connections between the reform leaders are many. Kopp, for example, got help to start Teach for America from Tilson, a classmate of her brother’s at Harvard University. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired Klein as chancellor (at the suggestion of the mayor’s friend, writer Margaret Carlson). Tilson was a big supporter of Klein, who hired Rhee, who had been in Kopp’s Teach for America program; Klein then suggested to Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty that Rhee would make a great chancellor. When Rhee quit as chancellor last year, she started a new anti-teachers union organization, StudentsFirst,whose earliest contributions were channeled through Democrats for Education Reform. Kopp introduced Tilson to David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network, and Tilson is now on KIPP’s board. And so on.

The book, published in August, has already been the subject of big-time reviews, running the gamut of opinion. It is useful to read the others if only to see the huge gap in opinion between those who support the broad vision of the reform movement and those who don’t.

There’s the glowing review that Klein, the former New York schools chancellor who now works for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., wrote for The Wall Street Journal, which is, incidentally, owned by Murdoch. Klein is painted by Brill as one of the country’s biggest reform heroes. But Klein still took issue with the author on those rare occasions when he wrote something less than reverential — to a reformer’s point of view — of Klein.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, alternatively, wrote a critical reviewfor The New York Review of Books, saying that Brill ignores evidence and history and notes that the book is “actually not about education or education research” but instead “about politics and power.” She’s right. She notes that she, along with other scholars who oppose test-based reform, is a target of Brill’s in the book but doesn’t address specific issues related to her personally.

And Richard Rothstein, a research scholar at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, wrote a smart review also worth reading.

Brill has a list of unremarkable disclosures at the end of his book, so I’ll end with these:

* I have a tendency to look askance at authors who think it is important, somehow, to describe what women are wearing — For example, Brill wrote about a teacher: “Standing in front of her new class in black stiletto heels, a black and pink crinoline dress, and a black, gold-buttoned jacket not quite covering five different bracelets…” — when there isn’t much of a point, and when there isn’t any description of how a man is dressed.

* I have a tendency to look askance at authors who incorrectly label The Answer Sheet. Brill mentions this blog as anti-reform, which isn’t accurate.

Reform based on the primacy of standardized test scores has failed to improve public education (see this comprehensive report from the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies).

We desperately need change that addresses the real problems that students and teachers face, including outdated curriculum, outmoded methods of teaching, the effects that living in poverty have on children and teachers, crumbling school buildings, unfair school funding mechanisms. We need to use technology smartly and not reflexively or before we know what it can really do. We need honest efforts to help teachers improve, to recruit genuinely well-trained teachers (yes, close down bad teacher prep programs) and to implement fair due-process systems for teachers, as is now used, for example, in Montgomery County Public Schools. (No need to reinvent the wheel on this one — even though reformers are spending gobs of money trying.)

So I am opposed to the arc of reform Brill supports, but not to reform. There is an arrogance to assuming there is only one kind, and the people who don’t support it instead hanker to maintain the status quo. It is unacceptable to assume everyone in the current reform movement is alike. They aren’t.

I suspect that Brill, in his last chapter, was attempting to bridge some of the ocean of difference among the various sides. If so, it’s too bad he wasn’t successful in that attempt.


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