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School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade

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Drawing by Edward Lear

In Brill’s telling, anyone who opposes DFER’s definition of school reform is a defender of the status quo or a tool of the unions. He disparages the eminent scholar Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, because she criticized Teach for America. Darling-Hammond believes that future teachers should have a deep grounding in the professional skills needed to teach children who require special attention, such as those who are new immigrants, those who have disabilities, and others who have marked difficulties in learning; she also believes that future teachers should be committed to teaching as a career, not short-term charity work. Yet Brill derides her views because higher standards for entry into the teaching profession would surely exclude TFA recruits, who receive a mere five weeks of training before they become full-time teachers in some of the nation’s most challenging schools. As a critic of the current reform agenda, I too am one of his targets; I will deal with the false allegations he makes in a different forum.

Brill believes that teachers are the primary reason for students’ failure or success. If students have great teachers, their test scores in reading and math will soar. If they don’t, it is their teachers’ fault. Reduce the power of the unions, he argues, and bad teachers could be quickly dismissed. Of course, bad teachers should be dismissed, and many are. Fifty percent of those who begin teaching are gone within five years. But once teachers have been awarded tenure by their principal, they have the right to a hearing before they can be fired. If hearings go on for years, the district leadership should be held accountable.

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.

Brill argues that American schools have been crippled by the power of the teachers’ unions. If only they could be neutralized, then principals could fire those who are incompetent or fail to raise test scores. Freed of the shackles imposed by the unions, the schools would dramatically improve their performance. He never explains why schools in non-union states fare poorly or have only middling records on federal tests, or why heavily unionized states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey—are at the top. Charter schools are typically non-union, yet their performance on average is no better than that of regular public schools. Brill never has to confront that fact because he doesn’t acknowledge the wide variation in quality among our nation’s more than five thousand charter schools, or the studies showing that many charters have disproportionately small enrollments of children with special needs and children whose English is limited.

Somewhat incoherently, Brill ends by arguing that deep reform depends on unions joining the battle, not as adversaries but as collaborators with those who support privatization and deprofessionalization of teaching. He proposes that Mayor Michael Bloomberg should appoint Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, as chancellor of the New York City public schools. He suggests that unions should join the reform movement even if they disagree with it, because it is so powerful. The difficulty with his argument here is that he seems unaware of or indifferent to the actual record of what he says is a movement for reform. He overlooks some of the movement’s biggest embarrassments, such as the test score scandal in Washington, D.C., which tarnished Michelle Rhee’s tenure, and the collapse of New York City’s “miraculous” test score gains after the State Education Department acknowledged last year that its tests had gotten easier over time.

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.

Janet Grossbach Mayer represents the kind of person who is on the other side of the “class war.” In As Bad as They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx, she vividly describes her life on the front lines of urban education. She went to public school in the Bronx and graduated from Queens College. She saw teaching as a career and a calling, not a stepping stone to policymaking or law school. Like most career teachers, she chose to teach where she grew up, which happened to be one of the poorest districts in the nation. Over many years as an English teacher, she taught 14,000 students. She wrote her book because she wanted the world to know that Bronx students, “contrary to expectations, were young people of remarkable character, unlimited potential, uncommon courage, and indomitable will.”

Like Brill, she is angry at the school system, but for very different reasons. What she experienced firsthand was “grossly underfunded schools,” with overcrowded classrooms, deteriorating and mouse-ridden buildings, and dirty bathrooms with no toilet paper or soap. Unlike Brill, she is critical of the fact that suburban schools “spend double, sometimes triple, the amount of money per student that New York City spends” and that schools generally continue to be racially segregated. Far from detesting the union at her school, she was grateful that it was there to fight for better conditions and to represent her when she had to deal with an abusive principal.

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.

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