In The Nation, Dana Goldstein has a really great review of Steven Brill’s new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill has historically been a big supporter of Michelle Rhee and other education activists whose reforms always seem to center around busting teacher’s unions. Goldstein spends much of the review pointing out all of the hard evidence about the influence of outside factors like “family income, nutrition, health, English-language proficiency” that have a greater impact than the teacher they have in the classroom. Brill and people like Rhee tend to look at teachers as the sole factor in a child’s education and upbringing and have embraced a destructive frame of “teachers unions versus poor kids.”
While Goldstein does a good job fisking Brill’s arguments, she notices that as he spends more time evaluating problems beyond the “teachers unions versus poor kids,” he moves away from this polemical binary and accepts that the challenges to providing a good education to America’s children are deeper than Michelle Rhee has lead us all to believe. Goldstein writes:
Although Brill, by the end of Class Warfare, comes to recognize the limits of the education reform movement he so admires, he somehow maintains his commitment to the idea that teachers can completely overcome poverty. There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them. [Emphasis added]
This is really great stuff from Goldstein, though it’s really just a savvy phenomenological bookend to an otherwise thorough review.