Steven Brill's Class Warfare: What's wrong with the education reformers' diagnosis and cures.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 29 2011 6:45 AM

Grading the Education Reformers

Steven Brill gives them much too easy a ride.

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Instead, Brill invokes "the central evidentiary value of charters like KIPP or Harlem Success: They proved that intense, effective teaching could overcome poverty and other obstacles and that, as Klein liked to say, demography does not have to be destiny." Again, Brill provides no sources. In fact, there is nothing but anecdotal evidence of KIPP's purported success. Its results may well be impressive. But KIPP's promoters have never sought the kind of careful study that could establish whether its students have the long term success that education aims for. And that means not just better passing rates on low-quality standardized tests of basic math and reading, but college completion, steady employment, and low crime rates. KIPP charter schools have existed for more than 15 years now; there have been, and continue to be, many lost opportunities to track such data.

In any case, KIPP and Harlem Success Academies are selective, making comparisons with regular schools challenging. Brill asserts that because charter schools accept students by lottery, their enrollment is representative of the neighborhoods where they locate. This is demonstrably untrue. Parents who choose to enter such lotteries, agree to monitor homework, enforce school rules, and attend parent conferences are representative of some, but not most, parents in inner-city neighborhoods. Some years ago, I asked a research assistant to interview teachers in neighboring regular schools who had urged parents to enroll their children in the Bronx KIPP lottery. The teachers consistently reported that they encouraged only parents who were most sophisticated about education and most likely to support children in an exacting school like KIPP.

Such parents are certainly more disadvantaged than suburban parents, but that's not the point: To be demonstrably superior, selective charter school students should outperform comparable students in regular schools. Perhaps they do, but that has yet to be shown. And there is now considerable evidence that both KIPP and the Success Academies have high attrition rates. Students who don't succeed are encouraged or required to return to regular schools. For selective charter schools, this may not be bad policy, but it vitiates comparisons with regular neighborhood schools that must take all comers, including students who rebel against learning, those with expensive and difficult-to-treat disabilities, and those who flunk out of charters.


KIPP's David Levin acknowledges to Brill that only 40 percent of KIPP graduates actually complete college. After adjusting for KIPP's selectivity at the front (lottery participation) and back (attrition of less successful students), this could still be better than graduation rates for students from regular neighborhood schools. But it may not be enough better to justify the absolutism of the reformers' crusade. I wish Brill had examined just a little data to better estimate KIPP's comparative record on this front.

Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago. (There has also been progress for middle schoolers, and in reading; and less, but not insubstantial, progress for high schoolers.) The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.

And the data might raise some questions about one of the reformist moves of which Brill is most proud: the Obama Administration's use of a little-noticed $5 billion provision of the 2009 stimulus bill to induce states to adopt the reformers' program of rapidly multiplying charter schools and evaluating teachers, in large part, on the basis of their students' test score growth. Brill is notably uninterested in exploring the validity of this approach to teacher assessment. Impartial policymakers and nationally renowned educational statisticians have almost uniformly weighed in against the practice. As they point out, the same teachers, using the same instructional methods with similar students, can be deemed effective one year and ineffective the next, because so much more enters into student performance than teacher skill. Scholars also observe that even if test scores were accurate, holding teachers accountable for math and reading scores creates incentives to minimize attention to the sciences, history, civics, the arts and music, physical education, and character development.

In the final pages of Class Warfare, Brill reports that this January, his chief exhibit, Jessica Reid, quit her charter school job. She had worked days, nights, and weekends in a superhuman, often frustrating effort to prove that effective teaching alone could overcome the obstacles of child poverty. At 26, she found her role in the fanatical charter school crusade was taking too high a toll on her marriage and her own sense of balance. She signed up to work instead in a regular public school where, protected by union contract, her working hours and duties are now limited—perhaps too limited, but Brill's heroine saw no other choice.

Reid's decision apparently caught Brill by surprise, when he was too close to completing his manuscript, too committed to his story line, to step back and seriously consider its implications. But at least Brill, so disinclined to explore challenges to the education reformers' clichés, reported the denouement. With this sobering spoiler in mind, readers will be in a better position to evaluate the self-righteous certainty that pervades the previous pages of Class Warfare.

Correction, Aug. 30, 2011: This article originally misidentified Harvard professor Tom Kane as a former Harvard professor. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, is the author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right.