The Education Policy Angle on “Fleishman Is In Trouble”

“Homework!…The cost-benefit of after-school homework.”

For a certain high-profile literary crowd in Manhattan and beyond, the fun novel of the summer is Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut, Fleishman Is In Trouble. The editor of the New York Times book review, Pamela Paul, tweeted about it this past weekend. Monica Lewinsky tweeted about it.

Brodesser-Akner is a Times reporter best known for lengthy profiles of celebrity characters such as actress-entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow and figure skater-felon Tonya Harding. Her book, published by Random House on June 18, is about sex, divorce, money, gender, and the perilous intersection of aging and ambition.

So what, if anything, does all of that have to do with education policy research?

Sure enough, there is an angle. It’s a brief enough passage to be quotable in full:

Miriam Rothberg was the closest the kids’ school had to royalty. Miriam didn’t even have to serve on the Parents Association. She and her money funded just about every single school initiative, which put her in this constant kind of advisor role for all the committees. She had so much power that she’d actually gotten homework eliminated completely—completely! homework!— in the lower school after “urging” the nervous, anemic principal to read through a three-hundred-page document she’d hired an education PhD from Barnard to assemble about the cost-benefit of after-school homework.

Three sentences, but they pack a policy punch. Though Barnard College does not grant an “education PhD,” the rest of the story has a ring of plausibility, or is close enough to qualify as satire rather than sheer fantasy. Homework is certainly a contentious issue among parents and researchers. An article in the Winter 2019 issue of Education Next, “The Case for (Quality) Homework,” reviewed the evidence and concluded, “In sum, the relationship between homework and academic achievement in the elementary-school years is not yet established, but eliminating homework at this level would do children and their families a huge disservice.” It also noted “media reports of parents revolting against the practice of homework.”

As for the ability of major donors to purchase academic research and to use it to influence school policy at “independent” schools — well, from the context, it sounds like the fictional Miriam Rothberg was pursuing what Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, in another Education Next context (“Should Schools Embrace Social and Emotional Learning?”), memorably called “policy-based evidence-making.” That is a hazard in the field.

As for donor clout, it’s safe to say that just as public schools have interest-group politics involving politicians, teachers unions, and parent-voters, independent schools are not without politics of their own. A 1992 paper, “Emerging Issues in K-12 Independent School Governance,” by Pearl Rock Kane reported, “the consumerist attitude toward independent schools has replaced the familial feeling that once characterized the relationship.” Kane, who died earlier this year, was for nearly 40 years the director of the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership, which is at Teachers College, Columbia University. She also conducted a terrific interview with Milton Friedman (“Choice and Freedom”) that appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Education Next. Though Kane’s distinction between a “consumer attitude” and a “familial feeling” may feel a bit too neat and sharp (a topic for the rest of Brodesser-Akner’s book), there’s probably also something accurate about that description, both for better and for worse.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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