My essay on Steven Brill's new book, Class Warfare, is out in this week's Nation. The book is an impressive work in many ways; Brill does a great job at documenting the many financial, political, and personal connections that animate the standards-and-accountability school reform movement. And his thinking on charter schools and Teach for America has become more sophisticated and critical since his famous "rubber room" and "teachers' unions last stand" articles came out in 2009 and 2010.
That said, Class Warfare is filled with the sort of myopic, test-score-obsessed thinking that dominates far too much of the education conversation. I write:
School reform is just as much about the three Cs: curriculum (what knowledge and skills students actually learn); counseling (how we prepare young people, professionally and socially, for adult life); and civics (whether we teach students how to participate in American democracy).
Brill never mentions any of this. Class Warfare is built around the idea of children, particularly poor children, as test-score-producing machines, with little to no attention paid to other aspects of their personalities or lives. The book’s heroes are philanthropists, school administrators, policy wonks and politicians. We meet few students or parents.
Most pernicious is Brill’s repeated claim that the effects of poverty can be not only mitigated but completely beaten back by good teachers. “A snowballing network of education reformers across the country…were producing data about how teaching counted more than anything else,” Brill writes in the book’s opening pages. Later, he devotes a chapter to economists Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, whose work on value-added teacher evaluation has powerfully influenced Bill Gates’s education philanthropy. “It wasn’t that poverty or other factors didn’t affect student performance,” Brill summarizes. “Rather, it was that teacher effectiveness could overcome those disadvantages” (emphasis added).
In fact, the work of the many researchers Brill approvingly cites—including Kane, Staiger and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek—shows that while teaching is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, family and neighborhood characteristics matter more. The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.
It is tiring to make this point over and over again.