Steve Brill???s Diane Ravitch moment

It’s hard to tell whether Joe Nocera’s op-ed essay in the New York Times last week, “Teaching With The Enemy,”
is wonderfully nuanced or just silly.  That’s surely what some
education observers might wonder about the notion that Randi Weingarten,
former head of New York City’s teacher union and current head of the
American Federation of Teachers, should be chancellor of New York City
schools.*  In fact, Nocera notes that he himself “nearly fell out of my
chair” when Steven Brill told him that Weingarten, who is “the enemy” of
Brill’s new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, threw him a book party.

This, of course, is vintage Weingarten, described by Nocera as
“whip-smart” and “politically savvy.”  But the larger question is what
happened to Brill, founder of American Lawyer and Court TV and a formidable presence in the New York media scene, on the way to the education repair shop?

Himself whip-smart and politically savvy, Brill made instant news when he took on the city’s teachers union in a 2009 New Yorker story
about the city’s notorious “rubber rooms,” where bad teachers went to
soak up full salaries while doing nothing.  In that story Brill
described Weingarten as such a ferocious defender of teachers that she
“would protect a dead body in the classroom.”  That was meant to suggest
that teacher unions weren’t so good for our kids.

And indeed, in the ensuing book’s first 420 pages, as Nocera colleague Michael Winerip wrote of Class Warfare
last August, Brill “bashes the union and its president, Randi
Weingarten, is dismissive of veteran teachers and extols charters.”

So why does Brill “suddenly veer… in a different direction” at the
end, as Nocera asks.  Brill gives a decidedly Diane Ravitch-like reply:
“It’s called reporting,” he tells Nocera.  Of course, Ravitch changed
her mind about reform over the course of several years — and
after writing many books that helped define the historical record of
shame that has helped give the reform movement its shape and energy.
Brill managed the 180-degree turn in one book.**

What’s going on here?

On the silly side, one could argue that teacher unions have done more (teachers, please note the conditional: one could argue)
to grease the wheels of American education decline than any other
single organization and so it wouldn’t make much sense to make one of
its most effective leaders a school chancellor, even under a  “keep your
enemies closer” rubric.  In his book Brill quotes Mayor Michael
Bloomberg saying, “It’s a really stupid idea… Never in a million years.”
(The way things have been going for Bloomberg lately, the end may be
nearer than he thinks.)

On the nuanced side, Brill attributes his change of heart to several people:

  • Jessica Reid, a charter school assistant principal who “burned
    out before Mr. Brill’s eyes,” says Winerip, and quit her job;
  • Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, who told Brill that there
    aren’t enough good teachers, with or without unions, to do what the
    good charters do;
  • Randi Weingarten, who “really cares about this stuff” (Brill to Winerip).

All of this means that, as Nocera sees it,

[Y]ou simply cannot fix America’s schools by `scaling’
charter schools. It won’t work. Charters schools offer proof of concept
that great teaching is a huge difference-maker, but charters can only
absorb a tiny fraction of the nation’s 50 million public school
children. Real reform has to go beyond beyond charters – and it has to
include the unions. That’s what Brill figured out.”

In fact, most good reformers have figured that out too.  But one need
not accuse reformers of demonizing Weingarten and her union, as Nocera
says they do, in order to understand the situation.***

There is no doubt of Weingarten’s savvy nor is there any question
that the unions’ don’t have a tight grip on our education system.  But
there are some key educational practices that need to be addressed and
that require a great deal of change  on the part of the education
establishment, which includes Weingarten and her unions.  (For a fuller
picture of Weingarten and a good account of the difference between
political savvy and fixing our schools for kids, I suggest RiShawn Biddle’s profile in the American Spectator.)

The anti-reform movement has picked up some steam of late because it
has successfully worked these false dichotomies –  e.g. because unions
control public schools, our school children need them – into a rallying
cry.  As a political slogan, it may work.*  Unfortunately, as a
governance model, it still leaves a great deal to be desired. And we do
have plenty of “proof of concept” on that one.

As to the question of scale, that too is a trick of rhetoric in this particular debate, relying on the age-old cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with
this, therefore because of this) fallacy to win rhetorical points:
because we haven’t scaled up, we can’t scale up. So we shouldn’t even
try to scale up?  Sure, we can’t fire all the teachers who are members
of unions and sure we can’t run a school system that burns people out. 
But just because we can’t turn the Titanic around on a dime, doesn’t
mean we should embrace icebergs.  It surely doesn’t mean that union
power which hobbles a school’s ability to educate children – with
regressive tenure and seniority rules, for example – doesn’t need to be
checked. And it surely doesn’t mean that teachers can’t be held
accountable for student performance.

To paraphrase E.D. Hirsch, the problem with our education system is
not bad people but bad ideas.  I probably wouldn’t go that far
(regarding the bad people!), but as a general proposition it should
remind us that “car[ing] about this stuff” is a necessary but not sufficient qualification for New York City schools chancellor.

–Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow


*Please see Mike’s just posted post on “disingenuous teachers unions.”

**In her resolutely change-of-heart book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch
writes, “I have a right to change my mind.”  But her explanation of the
change presages Brill’s,that “my views changed as I saw how these ideas
[she lists “testing, accountability, choice, and markets”] were working
out in reality.”  And she quotes John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts
change, I change my mind.”

***Can we stop with the “demonizing”?  Some very smart and dedicated
reformers have taken a great deal of unearned demonization from the
warm-and-fuzzy teacher union folks – and columnists who love the
precision of the word.

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