Steve Brill’s Report Card on School Reform
By SARA MOSLE
Published: August 18, 2011
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 intervention).
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.