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The Best and the Brightest

PERHAPS THE VERY best thing about Steven Brill’s new book is its title. The phrase “class warfare” has a double meaning, of course, and the book paints very clearly the deep economic cleavages that underlie the fierce education debates within the Democratic Party over such policy issues as charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and the role of poverty in achievement outcomes. In Brill’s telling, the education class war pits a heroic group of entrepreneurial philanthropists, highly successful hedge fund billionaires, and idealistic Ivy Leaguers who join Teach for America against somewhat grubby and grasping rank-and-file public school teachers and their union leaders, who often put their own selfish interests above those of the children. In looking out for what is best for low-income and minority students, Brill contends, Wall Street hedge fund managers are a much more reliable ally than the middle-class teachers who educate schoolchildren every day. Brill’s worldview is important to understand because it is typical of the outlook of the education “reform” community, including leaders of the Obama administration, and the president himself.

Brill’s critique of teachers’ unions, which comes in eighty-four lively bite-sized chapters, seems to be heavily colored by his early reporting for an influential exposé in The New Yorker on New York City’s “rubber rooms,” where teachers awaiting adjudication for gross negligence were paid to sit around playing cards. Brill worries that large numbers of teachers take the lazy attitude that student poverty is an excuse for failure, and do not hold all students to high standards.

Worst of all, says Brill, is union opposition to charter schools—publicly funded institutions which, he says, take a “no excuses” attitude toward education. These mostly non-unionized schools, he claims, hire talented teachers who, through hard work and high expectations, enable students to “overcome” poverty. Particularly important for Brill are the charter schools, such as Harlem Success, that are housed in the same facilities as regular public schools and score much higher on standardized tests. “Same building in the same community with similarly qualified, or challenged, students,” Brill writes, but with very different results. In raising questions about charters, Brill says, unions are on the wrong side of the civil rights issue of this generation.

Brill’s portrait of school reform in America is highly seductive. It would be very nice to believe that if only unions would get out of the way, we could make enormous strides with fairly simple changes in school governance and human capital policies. But like the film Waiting for Superman before it, Class Warfare is highly misleading and often simplistic.

To begin with, Brill extrapolates unfairly and too much from his time spent in the rubber rooms with some of New York’s worst educators. The rubber rooms were indefensible, and Brill was right to go after them—but the teachers languishing there were hardly representative. They accounted for one-twentieth of one percent of teachers in the city, according to the journalist Dana Goldstein. Most teachers are doing a good job, and at the national level the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has endorsed “peer review” programs to expeditiously weed out low performers.

Brill’s anger about union opposition to charter schools is strangely undiminished by the results of the nation’s most comprehensive study of charter schools, which was funded by pro-charter school foundations. It found that 83 percent of charters perform the same or worse than regular public schools. Some charters, such as Harlem Success, do post impressive test scores, but Brill is wrong to suggest that the student population is the same as those in neighboring public schools. A growing body of research shows that high-flying charters benefit from self-selection, high attrition rates, and a positive peer environment for those students who persist—none of which Brill acknowledges.

Worst of all is Brill’s acceptance of the slogans suggesting that good teaching matters “more than anything else,” and that the effects of poverty have been “overcome” in successful charters. In fact, social scientists universally agree that family poverty is a far more important predictor of achievement than teacher quality. And even the nation’s very best high-poverty charter school chain, KIPP, which enjoys all the advantages of self-selection, high attrition, and unparalleled philanthropic support, fails to produce college graduates two-thirds of the time.

While Brill compares teachers’ union leaders to Saddam Hussein loyalists and South African apartheid officials, he seems oddly convinced that the hedge fund billionaires who are so enthusiastic about charter schools have only the interests of children at heart. But might it be in the self-interest of very wealthy individuals to suggest that expensive efforts at reducing poverty are not necessary, and that a non-union teaching environment will do the trick? I have no doubt that many good-willed hedge fund managers sincerely want to improve outcomes for low-income students, but I wish Brill, a veteran journalist, had been more skeptical about their expertise. Union critics are right to say that the interests of teachers and students are not perfectly aligned, but cannot the same be said of the hedge fund community and students? When hedge fund managers argue that their income should be taxed at a 15 percent marginal rate, they limit government revenue and squeeze funds for a number of public pursuits, including schools. Is that putting the interests of kids ahead of adults, as the reformers suggest we should always to do?

Moreover, is the bias of Wall Street—that deregulation is good and unions distort markets—really beneficial for low-income children? Why isn’t Brill more skeptical of deregulation in education, given that the deregulation of banking, also supported by Wall Street, wreaked havoc on the economy? And is the antipathy of hedge fund managers toward organized labor generally in the interests of poor and working class students, whose parents can’t make ends meet in part because organized labor has been eviscerated in the United States over the past half century?

Albert Shanker, the head of the AFT from 1974 to 1997, believed that teachers’ unions should be affiliated with the AFL-CIO in part because teachers could do a much better job of educating students if educators were part of a coalition that fought to reduce income inequality, and provide for better housing and health care for children. So strongly did Shanker believe in this alliance that he was willing to forfeit potential leadership in a merged AFT-National Education Association (NEA) organization over the issue of AFL-CIO affiliation. In the end, a majority of NEA members, who could not abide the idea of being in an organization with plumbers and truck drivers, rejected the merger.

Brill is a fan of Shanker as an education reformer (and says nice things about my biography of Shanker), but throughout the book, Brill unfortunately voices much of same class bias reflected by NEA members. His disdain for organized labor is made vividly clear, for example, in his view of what constitutes shady or suspicious behavior. Brill gets very worked up about the fact that Diane Ravitch, a distinguished historian of education who wrote a book renouncing her previous embrace of charters and merit pay, may have subsequently received payment for speaking to teachers’ union audiences. Yet when Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York City schools, decamped to work for Rupert Murdoch’s empire on an education technology program that has contracts with New York City public schools, Brill’s ethics antennae remained oddly dormant.

Similarly, Brill’s narrative is almost comically obsessed with the Ivy League pedigrees of many education reformers. Throughout the book, he duly notes the reformers who are graduates of Harvard (Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, John King and Whitney Tilson); Yale (Robert Gordon, David Levin, Ravenel Curry, and Michael Johnston); and Princeton (Wendy Kopp, Jonathan Schnur.) In case we don’t get the point, he notes that the people Klein put in charge of firing bad teachers were “all Ivy League lawyers.” As a bearer of two Ivy League degrees who works at an endowed think tank and gladly takes money from billionaire philanthropists, I certainly do not think Harvard or the Gates Foundation are evil; not at all. But I also know that top universities and unaccountable foundations are fertile breeding grounds for hubris, a problem that Brill fails to appreciate. On more than one occasion, Brill lauds education reformers for being the “best and brightest,” apparently oblivious of the fact that David Halberstam popularized this phrase so as to mock it.

To his credit, in his very last chapter, Brill does an about-face and acknowledges some of the serious limitations of the reformer model that relies upon superstar teachers in nonunionized charter schools. Throughout his book, Brill follows Jessica Reid, a talented young TFA alum serving as an assistant principal at a Harlem Success charter school. Incredibly dedicated to her students, she was “always either working or thinking about work” and is meant to serve as a pointed contrast to less-committed unionized teachers. But in the last chapter, Reid resigns, explaining that “this wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms of my health and my marriage.” Although Brill does not cite the broader research, Jessica Reid’s story is a common one. Studies show that teacher turnover is much higher in the largely non-unionized charter sector than in regular public schools. And burnout is much more frequent in high-poverty schools of all kinds than in mixed-income or middle-class schools because teachers feel overwhelmed by concentrations of poverty.

While Brill divides the world between teachers’ unions and reformers, the truth is that unions have long advocated a number of genuine reforms that can have a sustained impact on reducing the achievement gap. They back early-childhood education programs that blunt the impact of poverty and have been shown to have long-lasting effects on student outcomes. And in places such as La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Louisville, Kentucky, teachers have backed public school choice policies that reduce concentrations of school poverty and increase the chances of success for low-income students.

All in all, Steven Brill should be credited for vividly highlighting the class dimension of the education war going on “for the soul of the Democratic Party.” One side, backed by rank-and-file teachers and their democratically-elected representatives, sees poverty and segregation as central issues to be addressed though education reform as well as health and housing programs; the other side, backed by wealthy interests, sees poverty as an excuse and unions as the problem. What Brill does not explain is how this classic divide, which fairly describes the difference between Democrats and Republicans, has become a Democratic civil war.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice; and Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.