Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Steven Brill Thinks So

Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Steven Brill Thinks So

Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Steven Brill Thinks So

The journalist blames teachers unions, not economic inequality, for students’ failure to achieve.


Steven Brill, the journalist and media entrepreneur, has come a long way since he helicoptered onto the education beat in 2009.

That’s when The New Yorker published Brill’s exposé of the New York City “rubber rooms,” where the Department of Education parked the one-twentieth of 1 percent of the city’s 80,000 public school teachers—about forty people—who had been accused of gross negligence and removed from the classroom. As they awaited the due process hearings guaranteed in their union contracts, rubber room teachers received full pay and benefits, sometimes for up to three years.

The article sparked outrage among readers, who were appalled that millions of tax dollars were spent annually paying the salaries and arbitrating the cases of teachers who came to work inebriated or practiced corporal punishment. Despite the fact that the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers shared responsibility for creating the clumsy and cumbersome arbitration process, Brill laid the blame solely at the union’s doorstep.

He followed up with his hyperbolically titled May 2010 New York Times Magazine feature “The Teachers’ Unions Last Stand,” which admired the Obama administration’s attempt to pressure states to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ standardized test scores. The article lavishly praised nonunionized charter schools while entirely blaming teachers unions for the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students.

Together, the two pieces had the kind of impact most journalists can only dream of. Rubber room teachers were reassigned to desk jobs, and their arbitrations were sped up. More significant, Brill’s framing of the education debate, borrowed from reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee—teachers unions vs. poor kids—infiltrated the popular consciousness more deeply than it had before, presaging the September 2010 release of the pro–charter school, anti–teachers union documentary Waiting for Superman. Brill began to appear on panels with key figures in the education debate, including American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten and Harlem Children’s Zone President and CEO Geoffrey Canada. And he embarked on an ambitious book project: a comprehensive history and analysis of the standards-and-accountability school reform movement called Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.

Not surprisingly, given Brill’s history of interest in only the most controversial school reform issues, the book is filled with misleading discussions of complex education research, most notably a total elision of the fact that “nonschool” factors—family income, nutrition, health, English-language proficiency and the like—affect children’s academic performance, no matter how great their teachers are. (More on this later.) Class Warfare is also studded with easy-to-check errors, such as the claim that Newark schools spend more per student than New York City schools because of a more cumbersome teachers’ contract. In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that the state must provide supplemental per-pupil funding to all high-poverty school districts, including Newark. As a result, New Jersey is considered a national leader in early childhood education, and Newark graduates more African-American boys from high school—75 percent—than any other major city.

But here’s the thing: by the closing chapters of his breezy, 478-page tome, Brill sounds far less like an uncritical fan of charter school expansion, Teach for America (TFA) and unionbusting and far more like, well, a guy who has spent several years immersed in one of the thorniest policy conversations in America, thinking about a problem—educational inequality—that defies finger-pointing and simple solutions.

Welcome to the beat, Brill!

One of Class Warfare’s stars, a charter school assistant principal named Jessica Reid, unexpectedly quits her job at Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy in the middle of the school year; the charter chain’s rigorous demands pushed the 28-year-old Reid, a dedicated and charismatic educator, to the brink of a nervous breakdown and divorce. “This wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms of my health and my marriage,” she tells Brill, who concludes that he agrees (at least in part) with education historian and charter school critic Diane Ravitch. You can’t staff a national public school system of 3.2 million teachers, Ravitch tells Brill, with Ivy Leaguers willing to run themselves ragged for two years. Most of these folks won’t move on to jobs at traditional public schools, as the uncommonly committed Jessica Reid did, but will simply leave the classroom altogether and head to politics, business or law, where they’ll be paid more to do prestigious work, often with shorter, less pressure-filled hours.

That’s the model of Teach for America, of course, another school reform organization with which Brill is somewhat frustrated by the end of his book. He comes to grasp the fundamental problem with TFA’s conception of the teacher pipeline: Let’s say the lowest-performing 10 percent of career teachers—320,000 people—are fired. How will we replace them? TFA will contribute only about 9,300 corps members to the nation’s schools in the coming school year; even if every graduate of a selective college entered teaching—and some would surely be terrible teachers—we’d still have a shortage. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was “actually making an important point,” Brill concedes, when he said, “You can’t fire your way to the top.”

Faced with these complexities, Brill comes up with a strange conclusion: Maybe New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg should give Randi Weingarten control of the city schools in a “Nixon goes to China” move. If she were responsible for student achievement instead of teacher job security, Brill suggests, the labor leader would be forced to push union members harder to prioritize instructional excellence and embrace tenure reform.

But in fact, the sea change in union attitudes that Brill believes can only be achieved by this unlikely move has already taken place. The AFT and, more recently, the National Education Association have accepted the fundamental premise of tying teacher evaluation to student performance. The details need to be worked out in statehouses and school districts across the country—the most controversial issue, and rightly so, is the role that data from standardized tests will play. Nevertheless, the unions’ evolution into more student-achievement-focused organizations is, at this point, foreordained. In Colorado last year, the local AFT affiliate even supported legislation that requires student achievement data to account for 51 percent of a teachers’ evaluation score. Colorado teachers who receive a bad evaluation two years in a row will now lose their tenure protections.

* * *

All that said, it is truly ignorant to reduce school reform to a labor-management question. States with teacher collective bargaining routinely outperform right-to-work states academically, and teachers are unionized in most of the nations—such as Finland, Canada and France—whose kids kick our kids’ butts on international assessments.

School reform is just as much about the three Cs: curriculum (what knowledge and skills students actually learn); counseling (how we prepare young people, professionally and socially, for adult life); and civics (whether we teach students how to participate in American democracy).

Brill never mentions any of this. Class Warfare is built around the idea of children, particularly poor children, as test-score-producing machines, with little to no attention paid to other aspects of their personalities or lives. The book’s heroes are philanthropists, school administrators, policy wonks and politicians. We meet few students or parents.

Most pernicious is Brill’s repeated claim that the effects of poverty can be not only mitigated but completely beaten back by good teachers. “A snowballing network of education reformers across the country…were producing data about how teaching counted more than anything else,” Brill writes in the book’s opening pages. Later, he devotes a chapter to economists Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, whose work on value-added teacher evaluation has powerfully influenced Bill Gates’s education philanthropy. “It wasn’t that poverty or other factors didn’t affect student performance,” Brill summarizes. “Rather, it was that teacher effectiveness could overcome those disadvantages” (emphasis added).

In fact, the work of the many researchers Brill approvingly cites—including Kane, Staiger and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek—shows that while teaching is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, family and neighborhood characteristics matter more. The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.

It is tiring to make this point over and over again. The usual rebuttal is that determining exactly how much teachers matter is irrelevant, because they are one of the only levers in a poor child’s life over which school systems exert some control. This is true, and it’s a fine argument for focusing education policy efforts on sustainable teacher quality reforms, such as recruiting more academically talented young people into the profession, requiring new teachers to undergo significant apprenticeship periods working alongside master educators, and creating career ladders that reward excellent teachers who agree to stay in the classroom long-term and mentor their peers. This is what such high-performing nations as China and Finland do; they don’t, à la Teach for America, encourage 21-year-olds with five weeks of summer training to swoop into the classroom and swoop out again.

But because we know, without a doubt, that family poverty exerts a crushing influence over children’s lives, it is no small thing when standards-and-accountability education reformers repeat, ad nauseam, that poverty can be totally “overcome” by dedicated teachers. Of course, we all know people who grew up poor and went on to lead successful, financially remunerative lives. Many of them feel grateful to educators who eased their paths. But the fact remains that in the United States in 2011, beating the odds of poverty has become far less likely than ever, and teacher quality has less to do with it than does economic inequality—a dearth of good jobs, affordable housing, healthcare, childcare and higher education.

Advances in cognitive science have made it possible to pinpoint how these disadvantages hinder children academically. One-fifth of the middle schoolers in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, entered kindergarten in 2003 suffering from some level of lead poisoning, which disproportionately affects the poor and is associated with intellectual delays and behavioral problems such as ADHD. “It is now understood that there is no safe level of lead in the human body,” writes education researcher David Berliner, “and that lead at any level has an impact on IQ.”

Food insecurity is similarly correlated with cognitive delays, and rising in incidence across the country—more than 17 million American children consistently lack access to healthy, nutritious meals. Here’s how a team of Harvard School of Public Health researchers describe the relationship between hunger and student achievement:

When children attend school inadequately nourished, their bodies conserve the limited food energy that is available. Energy is first reserved for critical organ functions. If sufficient energy remains, it then is allocated for growth. The last priority is for social activity and learning. As a result, undernourished children become more apathetic and have impaired cognitive capacity. Letting schoolchildren go hungry means that the nation’s investments in public education are jeopardized by childhood malnutrition.

Acknowledging connections between the economy, poverty, health and brain function is not an attempt to “excuse” failing school bureaucracies and classroom teachers; rather, it is a necessary prerequisite for authentic school reform, which must be based on a realistic assessment of the whole child—not just a child’s test scores. Successful education reform efforts—such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides “wraparound” social and health services alongside charter schools, or California’s Linked Learning schools, which connect teenagers to meaningful on-the-job training—are built on this more holistic understanding of the forces that shape a child’s life and determine her future.

Brill and the accountability crowd are correct to note that high-performing teachers are consistently able to raise the test scores of even the poorest children. Research shows that an improvement of one standard deviation in teacher quality leads to approximately two to four points of gain for a student on a 100-point test in reading or math. Five years of great teachers in a row, therefore, could raise a student’s test scores by ten to twenty points.

Whether this potential growth is incidental or transformative depends on where a student starts out: if he began at the twentieth percentile in reading, he’d still be failing; a jump from the seventieth percentile to the ninetieth could make him a candidate for selective colleges. Unfortunately, as Paul Tough demonstrated in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, at far too many “miracle” inner-city schools, the vast majority of students—despite impressive test-score growth—continue to score below proficiency in reading and math. These students may graduate from high school, but they are unprepared for college or work beyond the service sector.

Honest reformers are all too aware of this problem. As KIPP charter school co-founder Dave Levin tells Brill, “I’m still failing.” Indeed, only one-third of the KIPP network’s high school graduates are able to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. This is a remarkable achievement in a country where only 30 percent of all young adults—regardless of family background—hold a college degree. It’s also a reminder of how very difficult it is to make huge leaps and bounds in closing the achievement gap. After all, a full 75 percent of the highest-income high school graduates are able to earn that BA by age 24.

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Although Brill, by the end of Class Warfare, comes to recognize the limits of the education reform movement he so admires, he somehow maintains his commitment to the idea that teachers can completely overcome poverty. There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.

The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them.

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