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


*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.

This post also appeared on Flypaper

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