by Steven Brill
Simon and Schuster, 478 pp., $28.00
As Bad as They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx
by Janet Grossbach Mayer
Empire State Editions, 166 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Less well known are contrary facts. The black–white achievement gap, as a recent report put it, “is as old as the nation itself.” It was cut in half in the 1970s and 1980s, probably by desegregation, increased economic opportunities for black families, federal investment in early childhood education, and reductions in class size.1
Another little-known fact is that American students have never performed well on international tests. When the first such tests were given in the mid-1960s, our students usually scored at or below the median, and sometimes at the bottom of the pack. This mediocre performance is nothing to boast about, but it is not an indicator of future economic decline. Despite our students’ mediocre test scores, the nation’s economy has been robust for most of the past half-century. And the news is not all terrible. On the latest international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, American schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan, and Korea. Even when as many as 25 percent of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of US schools drop.2
To put the current “crisis” into perspective, it is well to recall that American education was in crisis a century ago, when urban schools were overcrowded, swamped with students from Eastern and Southern Europe who didn’t speak English. The popular press at that time warned that the nation was being overrun by a human tide from inferior cultures, and the very survival of our nation was supposedly at risk.
US Secretary of Education Terrell Bell declared that “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the public schools put the nation at risk. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors to agree on national goals for education. Since then, political leaders have agreed that what is needed to improve education is greater accountability, based on standardized tests.
The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms—remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration—is supported by experience or evidence.
Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools. In addition, the “Common Core State Standards” in reading and mathematics that states must adopt if they hope to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education have never been subjected to field-testing.
So, yes, there is a crisis in education, a crisis caused by ill-considered federal legislation that sets utopian targets and then punishes schools and educators when they cannot meet impossible goals. As a result, cheating scandals have been discovered in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Some people do terrible things when faced with unreasonable targets and draconian punishment.
The response to the current crisis in education tends to reflect two different worldviews. On one side are those who call themselves “reformers.” The reformers believe that the schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators (also known as “accountability”), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students). On the other are those who reject the reformers’ proposals and emphasize the importance of addressing the social conditions—especially poverty—that are the root causes of poor academic achievement. Many of these people—often parents in the public school system, experienced teachers, and scholars of education—favor changes based on improving curriculum, facilities, and materials, improving teacher recruitment and preparation, and attending to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The critics of test-based accountability and free-market policies do not have a name, so the reformers call them “anti-reform.” It might be better to describe them as defenders of common sense and sound education.
seems the typical preppy socialite. He and his wife have homes in Manhattan (Central Park South), East Hampton, and the Dominican Republic. His father, Ravenel Curry III, also runs a money fund. He and his wife frequently appear in society columns, and she’s a well-known high-end interior decorator.A graduate of Yale and the Harvard Business School, Curry is deeply involved in school reform.
The financiers of public school reform described here live in a world of spectacular wealth. They believe in measurable outcomes; their faith in test scores is greater than that of most educators, who understand that standardized tests are not scientific instruments and that scores on the tests represent only a small part of what schools are expected to accomplish. The Wall Street men have found a cause that is both “exciting and fun” and, as Curry IV puts it, “because so many of us got interested in this at the same time, you get to work with people who are your friends.” It is unlikely that any of them have close personal connections to public education, yet they have made it their mission to change national education policy. School reform is their favorite cause, and they like to think of themselves as leaders in the civil rights movement of their day, something unusual for men of their wealth and social status.
In 2005, the financiers formed an organization called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) to promote ideas such as choice and accountability that were traditionally associated with the Republican Party. They set out to change Democratic Party policy, which in the past, as they saw it, was in thrall to the teachers’ unions and was committed to programs that funneled federal money by formula to the poorest children. DFER used its bountiful resources to underwrite a different agenda, one that was not beholden to the unions and that relied on competition, not equity.
While it was easy for the Wall Street tycoons to finance charter schools like KIPP and entrepreneurial ventures like Teach for America, what really excited them was using their money to alter the politics of education. The best way to leverage their investments, Brill tells us, was to identify and fund key Democrats who would share their agenda. One of them was a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who helped launch DFER at its opening event on June 3, 2005. The evening began with a small dinner at the elegant Café Gray in the Time Warner Center in New York City, then moved to Curry’s nearby apartment on Central Park South, where an overflow crowd of 150 had gathered.
DFER also befriended Congressman George Miller from California, the powerful leader of the Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee. DFER supported Cory Booker, who eventually became mayor of Newark. A DFER fund-raiser produced $45,000 for Congressman James Clyburn, “the most influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus,” who returned home to South Carolina to champion tuition tax credits and charter schools. Brill writes that DFER sent a memo to the Obama team immediately after the presidential election, naming its choice for each position. At the top of its list, for secretary of education, was Arne Duncan.
Unfortunately, Brill is completely ignorant of a vast body of research literature about teaching. Economists agree that teachers are the most important influence on student test scores inside the school, but the influence of schools and teachers is dwarfed by nonschool factors, most especially by family income. The reformers like to say that poverty doesn’t make a difference, but they are wrong. Poverty matters. The achievement gap between children of affluence and children of poverty starts long before the first day of school. It reflects the nutrition and medical care available to pregnant women and their children, as well as the educational level of the children’s parents, the vocabulary they hear, and the experiences to which they are exposed.
Poor children can learn and excel, but the odds are against them. Reformers like to say that “demography is not destiny,” but saying so doesn’t make it true: demography is powerful. Every testing program shows a tight correlation between family income and test scores, whether it is the SAT, the ACT, the federal testing program, or state tests.
Brill seems unaware of these findings. He expresses enthusiasm for tying teachers’ evaluations—which determine whether they will be fired—to their students’ test scores, but the weight of research evidence is against him. He often cherry-picks a single study or recounts an anecdote to support his views, but is apparently ignorant of the many studies that qualify or contradict what he believes. Studies of teacher effectiveness agree that there are wide variations in the quality of teaching, but they don’t agree on a mechanical formula to identify which teachers are more or less effective. Ultimately, that judgment must be made by experienced supervisors who frequently observe the teachers’ performance.
It may be true, as Brill’s press release states, that the battle over school reform is “a monumental political struggle for the future of the country and for the soul of the Democratic party,” but the agenda he promotes has been warmly embraced by conservative Republican governors like Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Snyder of Michigan, John Kasich of Ohio, and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. Brill never explains why the Democratic Party should support the most right-wing efforts to privatize public education and reduce the status of the education profession.
Brill does have one piece of news. He writes that Bloomberg started planning to overturn mayoral term limits and run for a third term as early as 2006, not in 2009—as he publicly claimed at the time—in response to the economic crisis of 2008. Because Bloomberg secretly intended to run again, Brill claims, he tied Joel Klein’s hands in negotiating with the teachers’ union and dramatically expanded the city’s pension liabilities while getting insignificant concessions from the union in return.
Brill’s book is actually not about education or education research. He seems to know or care little about either subject. His book is about politics and power, about how a small group of extremely wealthy men have captured national education policy and have gained control over education in states such as Colorado and Florida, and, with the help of the Obama administration, are expanding their dominance to many more states. Brill sees this as a wonderful development. Others might see it as a dangerous corruption of the democratic process.
As Brill’s narrative unfolds, the title of his book assumes a different meaning. The reformers Brill admires have Ivy League backgrounds—although there are certainly many Ivy League graduates and scholars who do not endorse the current definition of “reform”—and Brill identifies each of them with his or her pedigree from Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and other highly selective institutions. Class Warfare is not about a “classroom war,” but literally a “class war,” with a small group of rich and powerful people poised to take control of public education, which apparently has for too long been in the hands of people lacking the right credentials, resources, and connections.
Her battles with the bureaucracy are a small part of the book. Most chapters tell the stories of her students, each of whom lived in difficult circumstances, struggling with daily challenges that would be beyond the imagination of those who live on Central Park South and Park Avenue. Many had asthma, exacerbated by exposure to exhaust fumes, or an allergy to cockroaches; students suffering from asthma found it difficult to climb the school building’s five flights of stairs when the elevator was out of order, which it often was. In the winter, students wore their coats inside all day because the lockers had been removed and not replaced many years before. Many students had “divided families, hostile families, distant families, no families” and lived in roach- and rat-infested buildings.
Whatever its inadequacies, and they were legion, the Bronx school provided the most stable institution in their lives, a place where a caring teacher or principal or guidance counselor could help them solve a crisis that threatened to destroy their fragile situations. One of Mayer’s students, Omara, asked her teacher to recommend an orphanage near the school; her father had been murdered during Christmas break, and his girlfriend could not afford to keep her. Mayer brought her to the school’s guidance counselor and social worker, who quickly found a city agency willing to provide the funding for her to remain in her home.
Ramika, a bright and eager student, failed some courses, but Mayer would not give up on her. Ramika lived in a building with no heat, electricity, or hot water. She was responsible for her ailing grandmother and her three younger sisters, with whom she shared a room and a bed. Ramika did all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Their mother, a crack addict, had “disappeared” on the streets. Mayer continually encouraged Ramika to apply herself to her studies and, as her grades improved, to fill out college applications. To Ramika’s amazement, she was accepted by the State University of New York at New Paltz, but could not afford to attend. A woman who had graduated from the high school forty-eight years earlier awarded a full college scholarship to the student who showed the most promise and was first in her family to go to college. On her graduation day, Ramika won.
When test scores become the goal of education by which students and schools are measured, then students in the bottom half—who will inevitably include disproportionate numbers of children who are poor, children with disabilities, children who barely speak English—will be left far behind, stigmatized by their low scores. If we were to focus on the needs of children, we would make sure that every pregnant woman got good medical care and nutrition, since many children born to women without them tend to have learning disabilities. We would make sure that children in poor communities have high-quality early childhood education so that they arrive in school ready to learn. We would insist that their teachers be trained to support their social, emotional, and intellectual development and to engage local communities on behalf of their children, as Dr. James Comer of Yale University has insisted for many years. And we would have national policies whose goal is to reduce poverty by expanding economic opportunity.
In these two books, we have two versions of school reform. One is devised by Wall Street financiers and politicians who believe in rigidly defined numerical goals and return on investment; they blame lazy teachers and self-interested unions when test scores are low. The other draws on the deep experience of a compassionate teacher who finds fault not with teachers, unions, or students, but with a society that refuses to take responsibility for the conditions in which its children live and learn—and who has demonstrated through her own efforts how one dedicated teacher has improved the education of poor young people.
2 Howard L. Fleischman, Paul J. Hopstock, Marisa P. Pelczar, and Brooke E. Shelley, Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of US 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context (National Center for Education Statistics, December 2010), p. 15, available at nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo .asp?pubid=2011004. ↩
- 1 Michael T. Nettles, Preface, in Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, The Black–White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped (Education Testing Service, 2010), p. 2, available at www .ets.org. ↩
- 2 Howard L. Fleischman, Paul J. Hopstock, Marisa P. Pelczar, and Brooke E. Shelley, Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of US 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context (National Center for Education Statistics, December 2010), p. 15, available at nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo .asp?pubid=2011004. ↩