More Thoughs on Whitney Tilson and My Essay on Brill’s “Class Warfare”

No piece of journalism is ever perfectly-crafted or argued, and I think Matt Yglesias' defense of charter school donor/advocate Whitney Tilson, who I criticize in my essay on Class Warfare, is generally fair.

Yes, Tilson is a Democrat who has donated to many politicians who support progressive taxation and better social services for the poor. I admire Tilson for being one of the "Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength," signing a letter in support of raising taxes on wealthy folks like himself. And I'm a commited reader of Tilson's invaluable, though sometimes overheated, school reform newsletter.

The point I tried to make in my essay, however, was not, as Matt writes, that "the focus on schooling is kind of a mask for people who want to avoid grappling with other inequities." I agree with Tilson, and with Matt, that school reform is a productive lever for social change–if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be devoting my professional life to this topic! Rather, my point was that the political/rhetorical contention of some education reformers that teacher-quality reforms alone can significantly overcome poverty is wildly misleading. This becomes clear when one looks at the body of social scientific research on the forces that shape poor children's lives. As I write in the essay, we cannot downplay or ignore all the other elements of schooling–let alone other policy areas–that can help close achievement gaps, from rich, culturally-relevant curricula; to academic and social counseling; to vocational training; to civics education. 

Unfortunately, we have an education debate that, in the media, is often narrowed into a labor-management issue: "teachers' unions vs. poor kids." Tilson is certainly someone who uses this limiting lens frequently in his writing and speaking. That said, I also know that Tilson, who is intimately involved in the KIPP schools, has a deep understanding of the many challenges of school reform at the classroom and school-level. It wasn't fair for me to suggest otherwise.

I continue to believe, however, that there's a reason why non-unionized charter schools are so attractive to affluent education reformers who hail from the business world: They are a free-market solution based around ideas of competition and choice. But when we require parents to make a complicated set of choices to access a quality education for their children, we set up a certain number of poor kids to get left behind: the vast majority who lose school lotteries or who are never entered into them. Meanwhile, the least-advantaged children become clustered in neighborhood public schools of last resort, isolated from their peers who enjoy more parental involvement.

If we want to address this problem, we should be considering integrationist education reforms, not just policies that seek to make the best out of 100 percent high-poverty schools. And we need to figure out–fast–how to apply the lessons of high-performing schools, whether they be charters, privates, parochials, or traditional publics, to failing schools. As successful school leaders will tell you, an obsessive focus on teacher evaluation and pay isn't enough: Successful schools are built on engaging curricula, effective outreach to families, and so many other factors. 

Read more: Research shows good teachers flee segregated schools

The practicalities of school integration

Why housing policy is school policy

3 thoughts on “More Thoughs on Whitney Tilson and My Essay on Brill’s “Class Warfare”

  1. Monty Neill

    Thanks, Dana. Just to call your attention to one point, the idea that a series of good teachers can produce large gains. First, the gains are only test scores, which are not adequate measures of much important learning. Second, even those gains are not linear. I have to go back and check, but I think it is Jesse Rothstein (might have been Bruce Baker) who pointed out that gains one year, fade, hence cumulative gains are far less than additive. I can dig it out if you don’t know that research.

    I certainly concur that education is really important, but like you recognize it won’t solve poverty.

    Meanwhile, keep up the excellent work.

  2. Christine

    This is a thoughtful insight into not only how any type of education reform organization needs to inspire broader change in the system, but how a journalist is only as good as the dialog that surrounds what they write. Thanks Dana.

  3. Madelyn Gutwirth

    I greatly admired your piece in The Nation on Brill’s book, Dana. It really lays out the inconsistencies in his position, and nails its tone of union-bashing. But I do find it frustrating that discussion of our educational dilemmas fails so consistently to address the issue of how the cultural milieu of children is far more dominated by the media than by schooling, good or bad. And this milieu, by and large, is one hostile to the need for learning and growth of our young people. Does this public culture bear no responsibility for apathy toward learning?

    I realize it’s not easy to qualify or test this thesis, but how can it be made part of the debate, and be seen as at least as germane as children’s material and emotional circumstances or teachers’ skills?.


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