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Steve Brill's Destructive Morality Play

I do not doubt that a quarter of teachers in many neighborhood schools are unsatisfactory, but why would a fair-minded observer assume that poor teaching is the cause, and not the result of a dysfunctional system?
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Steve Brill's Class Warfare is a morality play. In Act I, Brill asks us to ignore social science and believe that improved classroom instruction in neighborhood schools can close the achievement gap. Like so many elites who have only seen a tiny slice of urban life, Brill remains unaware of the reasons why "truly effective teaching," by itself, can save individuals, but why it can not systemically "overcome student indifference, parental disengagement and poverty."

Brill then seeks even more suspension of judgment as he introduces true believers in "No Excuses!" charter schools who deny that they exclude the most difficult-to-educate students. This fiction was exposed, again, in the New York Times' coverage of Success charter schools that push out challenging students.

Brill, however, cites a memo from Success charter schools founder Eva Moskowitz complaining that her entire school (of 250 students) has "ten kids with non-trivial psychiatric problems," and "another 15 who teachers think have problems." I wonder what Brill would think about my high school where every regular class teacher had such a student load (emphasis mine). In our middle school, in electives, and in non-tested classes like mine, many teachers faced that level of challenges every morning, and a similar number of traumatized kids every afternoon, in addition to their other special education, English Language Learner (ELL), and regular class students.

In Act II, Brill drops into a neighborhood school in the same building as a Success charter school. When the Times reported on this issue, readers learned that 23 percent of a co-located neighborhood school's students were on special education IEPs in contrast to 10 percent at Moskowitz's charter. But Brill remains blissfully unaware of that reality, and he believes the neighborhood school principal who claims that she also would be turning out "hundreds of little Einsteins" if she could fire more teachers. That principal planned to give "Unsatisfactory" evaluation ratings to 25 percent of her teachers.

I do not doubt that a quarter of teachers in many neighborhood schools are unsatisfactory, but why would a fair-minded observer assume that poor teaching is the cause, and not the result of a dysfunctional system? I have seen plenty of teachers who had no chance of surviving inner city conditions, but typically they went into a classroom that had previously had an ineffective teacher, who had followed another overwhelmed teacher, who replaced the last warm body who was willing to endure the horrific conditions that the adults and kids have to share.

Brill's dramatic final act brings us back to Jessica Reid, a dedicated 28 year-old educator who is "the most stubborn person who you will ever meet." Reid resigned in exhaustion. Brill writes, "she used the word 'sustainable' a dozen times in explaining her sudden decision to me -- as in, 'This wasn't a sustainable life, in terms of my health and my marriage.'"

Brill concludes that the "sprint-like pace" advocated by the accountability hawks is unrealistic. Instead, he wants schools where teachers will "stick around for five to ten years." But Brill's solution is to turn complete power over to principals who are driven "crazy" by teachers who do not do their "Word Walls" just right, have an "imperfect bulletin board" or an "incomplete reading log," and to fire teachers who are not fully committed to nonstop test prep. Brill finally acknowledges the first part of the equation, in recognizing that we can not train 3 million teachers who will devote their entire lives to a "Whatever It Takes." But he does not ask why talented professionals would submit to such an authoritarian model. Neither does he suggest how we could train waves of replacements as the best and the brightest are burned out.

I do not want to sound like I am quarreling over who carries the heavier cross, but I must offer a few quibbles about Brill's account of a great teacher's short career. In doing so, I should explain that I entered the classroom as a 39 year-old rookie, with a decade of experience dealing with at-risk youth. I listened to administrators and teachers about "picking your battles" in order to produce sustainable improvements for kids.

Ms. Reid should be admired for taking over an additional class, and demanding the highest standards for the essays of 22 5th graders. Like many colleagues, I have volunteered to take on additional classes without pay. But I have always had 200 to 325 high school students per year, with up to two-thirds being on IEPs and ELLs. My challenges would have never become so extreme if it were not for charters and other magnets schools who "creamed" off the easier-to-educate students.

Ms. Reid complained that during her short career she could never sit down. After a basketball injury during my second decade in the classroom, however, I sat down to the playful hoots of kids who had never seen me do such a thing.

My classroom instruction was better than ever during my 17th and 18th years. I never lost my sixth sense about violence brewing in the parts of the building that were not controlled by adults, or my willingness to take my share of blows when brawls spread throughout the school. But I started getting queasy whenever I was covered by students' blood. By that time, I had worried over so many unconscious kids, made so many intense home and hospital visits, and attended so many funerals, that I knew my health would suffer if I kept it up.

I guess I should appreciate it when Brill takes a break from attacking my profession and union to acknowledge the stresses of our job. I have to respond, however, to his attack on teachers who "are toxic when they hang on for 20 or 30 years" as if we only care about tenure and pensions. Real world, the main reason why "reformers" want to get rid of us Baby Boomers is not economic. Idealistic do-gooders do not want their fairy tales about "High Expectations!" to be subject to scrutiny. They do not want young teachers to be tainted by veterans who question their "magical thinking" and their litmus tests, or who would teach rookies to "roll with the punches."

By the time the simplistic nostrums of Brill et. al are abandoned, however, how many Jessica Reids will have been sacrificed? When we finally face the fact that schooling in the inner city must be a team effort and seek sustainable reforms, we will miss the talent that is now being burned out.