Playing the Blame Game with Steven Brill and the Reform Movement

By Jane Weinkrantz



“A lot of people like that reform. Maybe we should get us some.” Junior O’Daniel, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

My mother called the other day to ask if I had read the Steven Brill article, “Are Teacher’s Unions the Enemy of Reform? Discuss.” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine and if teachers were against reform. My mom is a retired nurse; I asked her how she would feel if her pay scale had been rearranged based on how many of her patients were cured. She understood immediately and said, “I tried reading the article. I thought it would at least be fair, but as soon as I saw that it wasn’t even trying to be objective, I gave up.”

Journalist and attorney Steven Brill is an interesting pick for writing an article about reform that would tie teacher pay to student achievement assessments. Brill is the founder of the media magazine Brill’s Content which was founded in 1998 and tanked in 2002,, a web site selling everything from books to thesis papers which closed in 2001,, a media website which merged with Brill’s content, but died on the vine in 2001 and Clear, a service that would “verify” people’s identities in advance of their boarding commercial aircrafts; Clear ceased operations in June of last year after 165,000 people had paid a $128 annual fee to be “verified” by the company. Brill’s two successes are Court TV that he created in 1991 and sold to Time Warner in 1997 and The American Lawyer, a law magazine he founded in 1979 that has already laid off 42 people this year and announced today that it will be cutting another 15% of staff. In case you are wondering why any of this matters, consider the following: many educational reform proposals and laws require the firing of a teacher who has been deemed “ineffective” for two or more years running. It would appear that “ineffective” would be a kind way to describe Brill’s last decade of business ventures, but, unlike education, there’s no media reform suggesting that people with two or more failures get blackballed from the industry.

            So, are teachers’ unions the enemy of reform? Discuss. I’d love to, thanks. Brill talks about “Race to the Top” and the energy it has given to the reform movement, and, in particular to Jon Schnur of New Leaders for New Schools, a group dedicated to reform. Shnur is the guy who thought up “Race to the Top” which I think of as the game show “Let’s Make a Deal” for education. If you remember, “Let’s Make a Deal,” contestants would dress up in crazy costumes in order to be noticed by the host, Monty Hall. Once selected, a contestant might win a useful and sensible, yet not extravagant prize such as a television or stereo, but they could risk that prize and trade it for whatever was hidden behind “Door Number One, Door Number Two or Door Number Threeeeee!” Some people would win Hawaiian vacations or new convertibles, but others won “zonks” or things they had no use for such as live animals or junked cars.  The joke was on them. After making fools of themselves by dressing up in ridiculous costumes, screaming, “Pick me, Monty! Pick me!” and generally relinquishing their dignity, contestants found that, in their haste and greed, they had traded a perfectly functional color TV for twenty bales of hay or a two-year supply of hamster food.

What “Race to the Top” applicants have been doing is not dissimilar. School districts have to beg and scrape for money every year. Think of how hard we lobby to avoid state and federal education cuts or how vociferously we proclaim our support for school budgets by making phone calls asking voters to support our cause, so that we might live to teach another day. Our efforts aren’t usually to gain the luxurious addition of a new fine arts center for our school or a stable of polo ponies with which to start a polo team. What we want is only the new television, not the Hawaiian vacation.

Yet, with “Race to the Top,” it seems very likely that states all over America may dress up as Martians or Raggedy Ann dolls, scream at the top of their lungs, “Pick me, Arne! Pick MEEE!” and still come home wondering what to do with a two year supply of hamster food. Although it is very clear what states need to do in order to win “Race to the Top”---tie teacher evaluation to test results, remove the cap on charter schools, allow states to take over failing schools ---it is not at all clear that RTTT’s requirements will ultimately benefit the American education system nor is it clear what individual states will do with the money, presuming they win. Only one thing is clear: teachers unions that are faced with the choice of supporting reforms that will most certainly degrade their profession or rejecting these reforms and being called the “enemy” will not be the ones deciding how RTTT money is spent. Therefore, members of state organizations across America may agree not to protest the expansion of charter schools, agree to accept teacher evaluation practices based on a few standardized tests, agree to work longer hours and, in general, make concessions to avoid the damning charge of not being onboard to make American schools the best in the world and still find that the instructional and evaluation practices Duncan and Obama demanded of the RTTT winners are doing nothing to make their jobs better or their schools more effective and/ or that since no one asked us how the prize money could benefit the classroom in a practical way, it  is being spent hiring hundreds of administrators who use words like “matrix” and “paradigm”  to evaluate teacher evaluation tools or the evaluation of the evaluation of  teacher evaluation tools while school buildings everywhere continue to run out of  necessities such as paper and ink cartridges every May or earlier. In short, the hamster food might start to look good.

Brill writes, “To win the contest, states had to present new laws, contracts and data systems making teachers individually responsible for what their students achieve, and demonstrating, for example, that budget-forced teacher layoffs will be based on the quality of the teacher, not simply on seniority…Thousands of local news stories across the country speculated about how particular states were faring, some of them breathlessly referring to the “March madness” as governors, state legislators and bureaucrats rushed to consider reforms that might improve their chances.”

            Teachers, how many times a day do you tell your students not to rush? You don’t have to be Ted Sizer or Diane Ravitch to know that hastily constructed responses done without checking a few times result in sloppy work and incorrect results. Yet, reformers were delighted that RTTT had states hustling to meet their deadlines. Jon Schnur told Brill that the buzz around RTTT was “better than any of us imagined.” Should buzz really be driving educational goals?

Brill mentions Teach for America repeatedly in his article, apparently frightened that with this year’s staffing cuts, the darlings of the reform movement will find themselves without jobs because of the last in/first out rule that often governs layoffs. Brill describes last in/first out as “quality-blind layoffs,” as though too much experience is a bad thing.

Here’s some interesting news about Teach For America. A study by Doug McAdam of Stanford University entitled “Assessing the Long Term Effects of Youth Service: the Puzzling Case of Teach for America ” reported in The New York Times in January found that Teach for America graduates tended to be less civically involved that non-grads. McAdam stated that the reasons for lower civic involvement including “not only exhaustion and burn out but also disillusionment with Teach for America ’s approach to the issue of educational inequity.”

Of Teach for America ’s total graduates, 63% are in education, but only 31% are still teachers. According to Brill, those who are out of the classroom are reformers. He writes, “The standard profile is someone who went to a prestige (sic.) college,  joined Teach for America for a two-year stint and found the work and the challenges so compelling that he or she decided that education should be more than a layover before a real career (italics added). So they did more teaching or became involved running a charter school or a reform group, then kept moving up the ladder as sympathetic political leaders, including Democrats…took over cities or states and looked for people to overhaul school systems.”

In other words, an elite group of people from Ivy-League colleges who taught for two years as a hoot and decided education in general was an interesting field---the urban or impoverished rural classroom not so much or over 50% of the 63% who remain in education wouldn’t leave teaching for administrative and think tank jobs---are now shaping the reform that will impact the 98.2% of teachers who are not from Teach for America and who are not interested in “moving up the ladder” because they are dedicated to classroom teaching in the suburbs, in the cities and in the rural areas of America. Great.

Brill goes on to discuss additional influences in reform, including President Obama’s and other Democrats’ willingness to challenge their staunch supporters, the teachers’ unions, foundations and wealthy benefactors and the charter school movement; he compares Harlem Success Academy, a K-4 charter school with P.S. 149, a pre-K through 8th grade school.  Although the comparison must have been tempting since the schools occupy the same building and share a fire door, comparing a school that serves grades K-4 with one that serves pre-K-8 is already faulty. Even though total enrollment in the two schools is similar, one is instructing at many more grade levels. Additionally, the kids in the charter school have the advantage of involved parents. How do I know that? Their parents bothered to fill out the paperwork and go to the meetings to put them in charter school. Inherent in that action is an interest in one’s child’s education.

Brill persists in the notion that public school teachers lack commitment to their students while charter teachers are utterly devoted to their charges. Describing teachers’ working conditions at the Harlem Success Academy , a charter school in New York City , Brill writes, “Their progress in a variety of areas is tracked every six weeks and teachers are held accountable for it. They are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers with their levels of experience. The teachers work longer than those represented by union: school starts at 7:45 a.m. , ends at 4:30 to 5:30 and begins in August…they must be available by cell phone (supplied by the school) for parent consultations, as must the principal. They are reimbursed for taking a car service home if they stay late into the evening to work with students. There are special instruction sessions on Saturday mornings. The assumption that every child will succeed is so ingrained that each classroom is labeled with the college name of its teacher and the year these children are expected to graduate as in Yale 2026 for one kindergarten class I recently visited.” (I should point out that Brill also graduated from Yale.)

Shouldn’t it be obvious that having a cell phone for parents to call only improves education if the parent actually calls? Offering classes on Saturday mornings only works if a parent isn’t working a second weekend job and can take their child to school on Saturday morning. (It also doesn’t work if the parent is too hung over or simply doesn’t want to spoil their weekend morning. I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty lately, but it never hurts to remember good old dysfunction.) Providing a car service for teachers who offer extra help until after 5:30 p.m. is only useful if the child needing extra help is available after school and doesn’t have to go home to watch younger siblings. Anyway, how does the K-4th grader get home from an after-school tutoring session? Do the students of Harlem Success Academy walk home at night by themselves while the teacher takes a car service? They might walk or there might be a late bus, but I bet a lot of their already-invested-in-their-child’s-academic-success parents pick them up. As for “Yale 2026,” I really don’t know what to say about that except that displaying the teacher’s alma mater and the children’s anticipated graduation date is an educational practice that is probably not backed by the data-driven results the reform movement is so keen on, but that is O.K. because this was a kindergarten class and most five-year-olds are not aware of Yale’s illustrious reputation.  You have to wonder if the reformer who thought up that bright idea had ever met a five-year-old, let alone taught one.

Charter schools don’t pop up in neighborhoods where the middle-class American socioeconomic model is functioning reasonably well. In fact, on Long Island , there are charter schools in Riverhead where 25% of the public school students are eligible for free lunch, 8% for reduced price; Hempstead where 62% of students qualify for free lunch, 9%  for reduced price lunch, and Roosevelt where 42% of students  can receive free lunch, 9% for reduced price lunch . All three districts also have populations of at least 10% with limited English; in Roosevelt , that figure is 18%. A reform advocate will tell you that these are districts where the public schools are failing. In fact, these are districts where the American Dream is failing. The problems of poverty, unemployment, drugs, poor health care, gangs, homelessness and hunger follow children to school. The New York Times reported in November that 503,000 American households with children are experiencing “food insecurity,” a polite term for not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Instead of addressing these issues and considering how they impact the lives of students, we simply re-route the children of concerned parents in troubled communities to charters. Even if the cap on charter schools is removed, a thousand more charters won’t solve the problem of our nation’s inability to guarantee each of its children a full belly and a safe home. Don’t think for a minute that those problems aren’t factors in student success. Bill Perkins, Harlem ’s representative in the State Senate and an opponent of charters, told Brill, that it is “stupid and unfair to blame unions when the reason the schools in this community are failing is that they lack resources…the President is wrong.”

 Reformists have framed their arguments around the charge that those who reject achievement based teacher effectiveness ratings don’t believe that every child can learn, regardless of race or economic class.  Let’s re-frame the question and ask them why they think a hungry child would learn as easily as a full one, why an abused child would learn as readily as a safe one, or if a homeless child would learn as quickly as a secure one? The demand for charters in struggling communities is apparent, but are parents there really asking specifically for charter schools or for schools not beset with societal problems that reach far beyond their scope? Reduce poverty, homelessness, and unemployment in Hempstead , Roosevelt and Riverhead and it won’t matter whether the school is public or charter; educational achievement will improve.

Are teachers’ unions the enemy of good reform?  A better question might be: Has government become the enemy of teachers? Randi Weingarten tells Brill, “Deliberately or not, President Obama, whom I supported, has shifted the focus from resources and innovation and collaboration to blaming it all on dedicated teachers.”  If accountability and blame are our new mantras, maybe it is time we started charging each politician a $10 a month fine for every child in his or her district living in poverty, abuse or homelessness. Then, we’ll sit back and see how quickly those issues become national priorities. That would be a Race to the Top worth having.

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