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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Trouble with Steven Brill’s Black-and-White Worldview

By Rick Hess — August 30, 2011 4 min read
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Steven Brill’s Class Warfare is a highly readable, fairly reliable, if incomplete history of contemporary efforts to “reform” American schooling. Kudos on the readability--there’s way too little of that. The guy’s a terrific writer and really captures the flavor of the debates. I don’t think his small-bore errors are a big deal (it’s tough to write 437 pages without making a few mistakes). And, while he omits much of consequence, every journalist or historian ultimately is forced to do that in shaping any tale.

But what drove me to distraction is the casual certainty with which he frames the whole question as being “pro-reform” or “anti-reform,” and then labels individuals and views accordingly. It’s especially problematic because Brill never actually explains what it means to be a “reformer.” By page seven, he’s talking about Race to the Top being “a call to the barricades for those [like Randi Weingarten] who had held back the reformers” without ever explaining what “reform” is.

I think RHSU readers know that the WaPo‘s Valerie Strauss and I disagree on much. But I still bristled when Brill casually labels her blog The Answer Sheet as “anti-reform.” On the same page, Brill explains that he talked to Diane Ravitch while vainly seeking smart arguments from “the other side of the reform movement.” Seriously?

Brill reports that Ravitch spoke to groups in the “anti-reform camp” and that she got paid for speeches (mon dieu!!!) by folks “opposed to reform.” None of this, of course, is surprising to anyone who saw Brill’s discussion of “school reform deniers” in his recent Reuters op-ed titled, well, “The School Reform Deniers.” In that piece, Brill added an intriguing flourish by comparing the “deniers” to those tobacco executives who refused to acknowledge that cigarette smoking helped cause lung cancer.

Brill (fairly, I think) critiques Ravitch for cherry-picking evidence and making facile arguments. But when she argues that charters serve a more educationally engaged population, Brill dispenses with the point with a single cherry-picked study (Tom Kane’s well-done Boston evaluation), which focuses on charter schooling in a locale that Brill had just flagged as exceptionally attentive to quality. When Ravitch raises concerns about the effects of excessive testing, his only response is a lengthy, somewhat mawkish quote, from an assistant principal on whom Brill frequently leans, which says, more or less, that poor kids deserve to go to college.

Now, I’ve been more than a little critical of Ravitch’s book. I argued, in March 2010, that Ravitch’s post-epiphany thinking was plagued by “the same fundamental mistake, in reverse, that she made previously.” But, that said, it sure seems like Brill is trying to have it both ways and doing just what he faults Ravitch for doing. And my head simply spun when I got to his conclusions and realized that, after 400 pages of purple prose, goopy groupthink, and iron certainty, he decides solving these issues is actually pretty complicated.

Even after finishing his book, I’m not entirely clear what Brill means when he labels someone “anti-reform.” For instance, I think good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers, but I’ve been critical of simple test-based bonus schemes. I think value-added metrics based on reading and math tests tell us something valuable, but I’m skeptical of statewide evaluation systems that rely overmuch on those scores. I’m broadly supportive of the Obama administration’s education agenda, but have been quite critical of its turnaround schemes, plans for conditional NCLB waivers, and the design and implementation of Race to the Top. I’ve tried to determine whether all this makes me “anti-reform"--or even a “school reform denier"--in Mr. Brill’s eyes? If not, why not?

Brill complains that “it was impossible to tell from her book or our discussions what Ravitch was actually for.” I can say the same about him. I know who Brill is for--but I can’t figure out exactly what he’s for, except that it seems to be anything that his favorites are pushing.

In Brill’s telling, the “anti-reformers” and “deniers” are nothing more than a massive obsidian block squatting in the way of his noble (if ill-defined) forces of light. If Brill had been angling to pen anything other than a black-and-white shoot ‘em up, he could’ve told a much more informed, intriguing, and constructive tale, and one which would have made his conclusions feel more like an extension of the narrative and less like an afterthought.

Brill’s brand of “with-us-or-agin'-us” dogmatism encourages hubris, overreach, and the enthusiastic embrace of silver bullets (whether charter schooling, value-added, or merit pay)--in other words, precisely the things that Marty West, Mike Petrilli, and I warned about last winter in “Pyrrhic Victories?” Unfortunately, page after page describing the heroism of reformers and villainy of the “anti-reform” cadres isn’t likely to encourage reflection or smart course corrections on the part of would-be reformers.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.