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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Steven Brill

If you saw Waiting for "Superman," Steven Brill's tale in Class Warfare will be familiar. The founder of Court TV offers another polemic against teacher unions and a paean to self-styled "education reformers." But even for those who follow education policy, he offers an eye-opening read that should not be missed. Where the movie evoked valiant underdogs waging an uphill battle against an ossified behemoth, Brill's briskly written book exposes what critics of the reformers have long suspected but could never before prove: just how insular, coordinated, well-connected, and well-financed the reformers are. Class Warfare reveals their single-minded efforts to suppress any evidence that might challenge their mission to undermine the esteem in which most Americans held their public schools and teachers. These crusaders now are the establishment, as arrogant as any that preceded them.

Brill's heroes make a high-profile gallery. They are public-school critics like former New York and Washington, D.C. schools chancellors Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. They also include charter school operators David Levin (KIPP) and Eva Moskowitz (Harlem Success Academies), as well as alternative teacher and principal recruiters Wendy Kopp (Teach for America) and Jon Schnur (New Leaders for New Schools). Their ranks boast billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama himself. And they don't lack for savvy, richly endowed representation. Democrats for Education Reform, a lobbying, political action, and communications campaign rolled into one, has brought them all together. Lavishly supported by the newfound wealth of young Wall Street hedge fund managers answerable to no one, DFER's troops have been working overtime to radically transform American public education.

The case they make for their cause by now enjoys the status of conventional wisdom. Student achievement has been stagnant or declining for decades, even as money poured into public schools to improve teacher salaries, pensions, and working conditions (reducing class sizes, or hiring aides to give teachers more free time). Teachers typically have abysmally low standards, especially for minorities and other disadvantaged students, who predictably fall to the level of their teachers' expectations. Although teachers' quality can be estimated by the annual growth of their students' scores on standardized tests of basic math and reading skills, teachers have not been held accountable for performance. Instead, they get lifetime job security even if students don't learn. Brill observes a union-protected teacher in a Harlem public school bellowing "how many days in a week?," caring little that students pay him no heed and wrestle on the floor instead.

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Protecting this incompetence are teacher unions, whose contracts prevent principals from firing inadequate (and worse) teachers. The contracts also permit senior teachers to choose their schools, which further undermines principals' authority. Union negotiations have produced perpetually rising salaries, guaranteed even to teachers who sleep through their careers. Breaking unions' grip on public education is "the civil rights issue of this generation," and some hard-working, idealistic Ivy Leaguers and their allies have shown how.

The embodiment of Brill's dream is a non-union charter school teacher named Jessica Reid. A Teach for America recruit, she engages each of her Harlem fifth-graders in Shakespeare, phones parents about missed assignments, and works into the night tutoring students, meeting parents, and creating ingenious displays for the following day's lessons. It's teachers like her who propel the most-disadvantaged children on to college. But such teachers can work their wonders only in non-union charter schools that are free to fire summarily those who, though well-meaning, are less than extraordinary.

Given the perpetually discouraging landscape of education debates, a comparatively optimistic narrative like this one holds obvious appeal, and Brill's anecdotal vignettes are stirring. Without doubt, today's public schools tolerate too much incompetence and preserve some spending priorities that make no sense. But you might expect a veteran of Court TV, never mind an advocate of rigorous education, to appreciate the need to fairly present opposing arguments and evidence, even if only to show how they might be refuted. Brill's failure to do just that is all too symptomatic of the reformers' campaign more generally, a campaign that got its own start by calling for critical scrutiny of conventional assumptions.

The possibility that teachers unions are far from the biggest problem facing disadvantaged students is not one Brill or DFER want to broach. You wouldn't know from Class Warfare that students don't do any better where teacher collective bargaining is prohibited. In non-union Texas, for example, students perform about the same as socioeconomically similar students in union-dominated New York. This is no secret, noted frequently by skeptics of the reformers' agenda. I would have welcomed Brill's thoughts about how it can be reconciled with his story.

The complex answer might lie in the social and economic conditions that bring many children to schools, regular and charter, unprepared to take sufficient advantage of what even the most dedicated and inspired teachers can offer. Brill and his heroes have no patience for discussions of, say, children with barely literate parents who rarely read aloud to them, or with unemployed parents too stressed themselves to offer real support, or with untreated asthma that kept them up the night before, or with no place to study because they are now homeless or doubled up with relatives. For the reformers, these are union-inspired excuses, so addressing America's vast and growing inequalities has no place on their agenda. It's clear that more flexible union contracts would indeed be a good step, but unless other obstacles to high achievement are addressed, it isn't likely to make the difference Brill hopes.

Alas, the reformers' claim that non-union charter schools demonstrate that teacher idealism and dedication alone can prepare the most disadvantaged children for college success doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Given the charter school hype in Waiting for Superman and Class Warfare, it may seem hard to believe that students in charter schools do not, on average, outperform those in comparable regular schools. But abundant data show just that, and the most careful studies have confirmed it, most recently one by a Hoover Institution researcher who was predisposed to credit charter school success.

Neither Brill's text nor his notes identify the studies he relies on for his evidence to the contrary, but I can imagine what two might be. One, by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby, looked at New York charter schools; Gates Foundation researcher (and Harvard professor) Tom Kane conducted the other, examining Boston charter schools. * But both the New York and Boston conclusions have been undermined by methodological difficulties, and most academic researchers agree that they fail to refute the frequently replicated conclusion that charter schools overall have not demonstrated paths to superior performance. Evidently Brill is not persuaded by this consensus, but he never explains why.