First Person

A crtitique of Brill's "Class Warfare"

Van Schoales is executive director of A-Plus Denver, an education advocacy organization.

It’s not often I would describe a book on education reform as a page-turner, but Steven Brill’s book Class Warfare kept me engaged late into the night.  I thought “Wow, someone has finally described some of the political battles underlying the current reform wars.”

Brill’s book is a dramatic rendering of a few of the characters (friends like Democrats for Education Reform chief Joe Williams and Colorado State Sen. Mike Johnston) and the work undertaken to reform public education in this country.

While there is much that has been reported by others about Teach for America, KIPP, high performing charters and heroic figures like Wendy Kopp and Eva Moskowitz in the education reform movement, Brill manages to pull it all together into a compelling narrative about state and federal education policy change.

Brill captures many of the interconnecting relationships between the practioners in schools and the policy advocates at the city, state and federal levels.   He describes how many of the players like Jon Schnur came to education reform and how Alan Bersin’s work in San Diego led to the work of Michelle Rhee in DC and Joel Klein in New York. He also does a good job of showing how instrumental Race to the Top was to the reform movement, while shedding light on the drama around choosing states. The book reminded me of a fast paced education reform version of All the Presidents’ Men or the British series Traffik without the sex, drugs, violence and crime (hey, it’s public education).

My primary critique of the book has to do with Brill being fast and loose with some of the facts, and his primary target of criticism being the teachers’ unions. Yes, the teacher unions are a huge political obstacle in terms of reform but they are hardly the only one.  The teacher unions are the largest contributors to Democratic Party candidates.  They are the biggest funder to any party and as Brill reminds us it is coming out of taxpayer funds to pay teachers.  This funding makes it difficult to get Democrats to support reforms that would help most of their constituents’ kids.

Anyone that has spent time running a school or in the classroom knows that unions are only one of the challenges in terms of improving public education. Brill even implies this when he makes the nutty suggestion that Randy Weingarten be the next NYC chancellor.

Administrators, school boards and our own experiences and expectations about schools are as much of a challenge as the teacher unions.  We would still have a great distance to go in terms of creating a great public education system even if Scott Walker or Chris Christie succeeded in slaying the teachers’ unions, which they are unlikely to do.

As an insider that was involved in a number of events, policy changes and organizations described in the book, I thought Brill got many of the big picture issues and battles right, though the closer to the ground he flew, the more he oversimplified or got things wrong. This ‘war,’ like the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, becomes much more complicated when you get closer to the ground and understand more about what people are actually doing.

For instance the descriptions of the Democrats for Education Reform during the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and the work to pass Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness legislation (S.B 191) were mostly accurate in their implications but missed key aspects of what and how they occurred. The DFER-DNC meeting was mostly supported by my former employer, the Piton Foundation, not the big national foundations as was reported.

As critical as Johnston and the AFT’s Brenda Smith were to passage of SB 191, it would have not passed had there not been support by many other legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Senator Spence, Representatives Murray and Scanlan along with Speaker Carroll, Lt. Governor O’Brien, Colorado Education Commissioner Jones and a broad coalition of business, education, and civil rights groups, mostly coordinated by Colorado DFER and Colorado Stand for Children. See here for more details.

Overall I’d highly recommend the book to anyone interested in education reform and the connection between money, politics, policy and practice in education. Class Warfare makes an important contribution in telling a few of the stories behind what many of us feel is the civil rights fight of our generation.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.