A failing grade for Steven Brill

May 3, 2012

Steven Brill's latest book is a vicious and wholly inaccurate smear against public school teachers and their unions, writes New York City teacher Patrick Walsh.

CLASS WARFARE: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, Steven Brill's ethically challenged yet highly illuminating love letter to the corporate reformers bent on privatizing public education, is an extraordinary and revealing document. It is also one that, in a sane world, could easily serve as an indictment against the very process and people it was written to lionize.

In the main, Class Warfare tells the tragic and true story of how a handful of extraordinarily wealthy and ruthless private citizens, in league with their corporate and political allies, have been able to undermine the democratic process in order to remake the public school system in their image: that is, to remake it as another cog in the wheel of the ever more destructive unregulated free market, which has profited no one but themselves.

The book is a virtual bestiary of corporate reformers and their machinations, with Brill revealing page by page how men (and they are almost all men) with no knowledge of education, and no mandate except their own sense of entitlement, came to impose their myopic and disastrous schemes (charter schools, high-stakes testing, value-added metrics and the like) upon a nation. Students across the country, from sea to shining sea, are now suffering the consequences.

Harlem Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz delivering congressional testimony on school "reform"
Harlem Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz delivering congressional testimony on school "reform"

An essential part of this process was and is a public relations campaign designed to defame an entire profession. By ceaseless repetition of expertly produced nonsense--things such as poverty, class size, nutrition and parental care are all rendered irrelevant by the presence of a "Super Teacher" (who by definition is a 20-something, non-unionized, educational hobbyist)--a previously honored profession somehow became responsible for the fall of a nation.

Those professionals, of course, are teachers--specifically, unionized public school teachers--who for the past 10 years have been demonized and scapegoated by pundits and politicians who have little idea what they are talking about, but are too ideologically chained and arrogant to care.

Stephen Brill is more chained, more arrogant and less knowledgeable than most, but this has not stopped him from being catapulted into the status of instant education expert. Indeed, Time magazine named him one of the 11 Most Important Education Activists of 2011, largely on the strength of Class Warfare and two related articles that pretended to be about education, but were actually little more than skillful union-bashing. Brill, in fact, is a master of the arts of insinuation and elision. And at these arts, he is a formidable figure in the underhanded campaign against unions and teachers.

It is that campaign that I write about here, for it is my school that Brill uses to falsely malign an entire system.

DIANE RAVITCH, Valerie Strauss and Michael Winerip have all pointed out that Class Warfare is not really about education at all, but about "power politics" and how they have played out in education. What Ravitch, Strauss and Winerip do not mention, however, is how remarkably ignorant Brill is of the fundamental realities of how schools are run.

Class Warfare is choc-a-block full of scenarios that reveal not just how little Brill knows about education, but also how little credibility he has. At the same time, the same scenarios reveal how skilled a propagandist Brill is, and in this way, the book can stand as a model for most corporate reform writing.

Brill begins and ends his treatise by contrasting two schools in Harlem, a locale that, outside of New Orleans, is Ground Zero for the charter school takeover of the public school system. The two schools, PS 149 (a traditional public elementary school) and Harlem Success Academy One (the first in Eva Moskowitz's burgeoning charter school empire) are "co-located" in the same building--"separated only by a fire door," as Brill puts it.

In fact, they are separated by a gulf that Brill prefers not to mention, because to do so would shatter his fiction that the two schools somehow exist on equal footing.

To name just a few of the differences Brill fails to mention: As Brill well knows (or should know), charter schools can make demands on parents (forcing them to sign contracts that they will participate in school programs or check their children's homework, for example) that are unthinkable and wholly illegal in public schools. Charter schools can also make demands of students (children must walk with one arm behind their back, for example) that could be considered corporal punishment and might cost public school teachers their careers.

Charter schools can also jettison any child deemed a problem--and this they do, the moment that child threatens their test scores--a luxury not granted to public schools. What's more, there are immense differences in materials, computers, desks, chairs and even the lighting in the two schools. If everything in Harlem Success Academy (HSA) seems newer, brighter, cleaner and better, that's because it is.

The differences are so appalling that, after a walk-through by leaders of the NAACP last year, the organization wound up filing a lawsuit against charter co-locations not dissimilar to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education on the basis that the schools were separate and unequal.

The lawsuit led to the surreal sight of hundreds of African American children in HSA orange-and-blue uniforms standing in front of a statue of Adam Clayton Powell protesting the NAACP in support of Moskowitz. The protest took place during school hours, a political act that would have found a public school principal in deep trouble had they ever been small enough to use children in such a way. Brill saw the same schools as the NAACP, but apparently was not troubled in the least.

THEN THERE is the political favoritism granted to charters, particularly the charters of Eva Moskowitz, which have continued to open throughout the city in the face of ever-fiercer community opposition. In February 2010, New York Daily News journalist Juan González exposed the cozy relationship Moskowitz shared with then-Chancellor Joel Klein when he published their e-mails in an article titled, "Eva Moskowitz has special access to Schools Chancellor Klein and support others can only dream of."

Then there is the issue of funding. While my colleagues and I are compelled to buy pencils for our students, HSA apparently has more money than they know what to do with--including a budget estimated at over $1.5 million for public relations.

Some weeks ago, I returned home to find a glossy HSA postcard bearing my 7-year-old daughter's name and address on it, inviting her to "Learn more about Success Academy Charter Schools" and "Attend an information session in your neighborhood." Leaving aside the disturbing ethical issue of the DOE releasing my daughter's personal information to private operators, the mass mailings highlight the political pull that figures like Moskowitz hold in the DOE--pull that is simply unimaginable in a traditional public school.

But like everything else that challenges his narrative, Brill simply ignores the immense funding provided to HSA by its corporate allies; he apparently finds such differences as these unworthy of a single word.

Instead, Brill focuses on test scores. Like many people who confuse standardized test scores with academic achievement, Brill is gaga over HSA's stupendous scores and contemptuous of PS149's lack thereof. Like a good cheerleader for corporate education reform, Brill betrays not a hint of doubt concerning the importance of these magic tests, even if, like virtually all of the reformers (except, to her credit, Moskowitz herself), Brill sent his children to private schools that hold such practices in complete disparagement.

Meanwhile, Moskowitz has publicly stated that she intends to create 40 schools like HSA--which would give her essentially her own private district. With the help of her well-heeled allies, she is well on her way.

PS/MS 149, on the other hand, is a struggling school that has been making incremental academic improvements for years, even according to the reductive criteria of standardized tests (which since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2003 have become the only criteria allowed for measuring such progress). But it has also struggled in other ways, ways that are not measurable by data.

In the last five years, PS 149 has suffered the death of no less than six staff members, most of them teachers, as well as the loss of an entire floor of its building and a good part of its schoolyard to Harlem Success Academy.

Somehow, the schoolyard in which children from PS 149 played softball and kickball in the warm weather was ripped up without the knowledge of the school community--because Eva Moskowitz wanted a mini-soccer field built there (and despite the fact that there was another such field some 50 feet away). This, too, merited an article by Juan Gonzalez.

Loss of physical space of this order is called "sharing the building," and, as in every school that a charter has moved into, it has forced teachers at 149 to share classrooms, teach and eat in storage closets and hallways, and suffer other undignified scenarios that reformers would never allow their own children, or their children's teachers, to suffer for a moment.

For me, "sharing the building" meant I was assigned to teach in a "room" that was, in fact, a space designed to store books. It had no phone, abysmal ventilation, horrific lighting and the feel of a place of abject desolation. The only way to reach me was on the school PA system. As a result of HSA expansion, the teachers' lounge--an increasingly vital retreat in a school in which space and quiet are increasingly rare--was reduced to a 12-foot-by-15-foot space. It, too, was built as a storage closet--an apposite metaphor for what was happening to the profession in general.

What part of this looks like an even playing field to you?

IN MANY ways, Class Warfare is to journalism what the much ballyhooed Bill Gates-funded propaganda film, Waiting For Superman, is to documentary filmmaking. It operates on the same principles and makes the same arguments as that shamelessly dishonest film; makes them, that is, until the fantasies of a Peter Pan-like teaching corps, willing and able to work 80-hour weeks, breaks down under the weight of its own cruel and infantile absurdity.

Both book and film begin with a conclusion: because of its unionized workforce, the public school system is an irredeemable disaster; it must be replaced by a system based on a corporate business model before the United States slips even further behind its global peers. Both film and book also cherry pick "facts" or "vignettes"--suggesting that the absolute worst situation or scenario is, in fact, the everyday reality.

In a move to avoid acknowledging any collective responsibilities for what Jonathan Kozol has called the "savage inequalities" of contemporary American education, Brill parrots one of the more egregious self-serving fantasies of corporate education reform: the "heroic teacher," whose unflagging dedication can render misery, broken homes, abject poverty, homelessness and absent parents absolutely irrelevant.

Accordingly, Brill selects one teacher from Harlem Success Academy for whom he does nothing to disguise his admiration, and who seems to fit the model to a T. Conversely, from 149, Brill selects a "teacher" who is a horrifying exemplar of the "civil service mentality" that the author apparently discerns in all public school teachers, and for whom he does nothing to disguise his scorn.

For Harlem Success Academy, Brill writes almost worshipfully of one Jessica Reid, an admirable, extremely dedicated young woman who Brill describes as teaching her students something called "juicy words."

She is also depicted praising a student for making "total eye contact with the teacher throughout the lesson," as if the poor kid was being hypnotized. (As in many instances of pointing out differences between a public school teacher and a charter school teacher, Brill seems totally unaware that a NYC public school teacher could be reprimanded or cited for corporal punishment by the Department of Education for demanding a student maintain "total eye contact" with a teacher--as well they might be. As a parent, I'd raise the roof if a teacher demanded such behavior from my child.)

On Reid, Brill spends many, many words--some of them so sexist and absurdly inappropriate to the subject matter as to be beyond parody. Indeed, he writes a kind of People magazine-style mini-bio of Reid built largely of stuff like this: "Standing in front of her new class in black stiletto heels, a black-and-pink crinoline dress, and a black-and-gold buttoned jacket not quite covering five different bracelets, Reid called on [her students] one by one, to line up at the door."

A product of Wendy Kopp's "Teach For America" program, Reid, who "has her mother's Swedish face, blue eyes and blond hair," serves as the perfect symbol for corporate reform's solution to the problem of poor urban schools: the creation of an ephemeral army of young, educated white people who can bless the classrooms of the ghetto, inspiring them by way of what the brilliant Linda Darling-Hammond sardonically termed their "innate superiority."

Reid is told by her teacher mother that teaching is a profession in which "you can never sit down," and Reid, bless her heart, attempts to live up to this impossible dictum. Some of Brill's other charter school super-teachers are said to "teach with their hair on fire"--yet another example of the reformers confusing the subtle craft of teaching with some kind of state of frenzy.

However superhuman Brill's depiction of Reid may be, unlike with the unnamed "teacher" Brill describes working in PS 149, it at least has the distinct advantage of describing an actual identifiable human being, locatable in time and space and employed in the capacity Brill ascribes to her. Indeed, as her classroom was directly across the hall from the storage closet to which I was assigned, I saw her buzzing about day after day.

Until one day, just like that, Reid was gone. I later learned that with her health and marriage collapsing under the strain of the pressure-cooker pace so many reformers find necessary, she jumped ship mid-year to take a job at a traditional public school. Fantasy is one thing, reality, it turns out, another--and Brill's acknowledgement of these very human issues at the tail end of Class Warfare only serves to billboard the total incoherence of his argument, such as it is.

IN CONTRAST to his hagiographic portrayal of Ms. Reid, Brill sums up the quality of work at PS 149, and by extension all unionized public school teachers across the nation, with the following brief description of an unnamed fourth-grade teacher:

Across the hall and one floor down from where I watched Reid coach her kids on essays, juicy words, and personal biographies--maybe a fifteen second walk--I looked in on a goateed teacher in jeans and a sweatshirt sitting back in a chair in front of 18 fourth graders. His feet parked on the desk, he bellowed: "How many days in a week?" No answer. Half the children had their heads down. Most of the others were chattering away, except for two boys who were wrestling on the floor. The teacher asked again, louder. Still no answer. Then louder still, rocking almost to the point of falling backward in the chair. Then, "Okay, let's move on to something else."

Holy moly! No wonder the Chinese are kicking our butts!

As a parent and a teacher, I would be far more appalled than Brill to encounter such a sight in any school, no less the school in which I work and serve. And I would do whatever I could do to see it was immediately addressed.

But there is a problem with this description, and it is a problem acknowledged by every member of the PS 149 faculty who has read Brill's depressing, distressing passage--that is, by the only people who could know that it's a lie. That unnamed bellowing slob Brill calls out for his atrocious behavior? He is wholly unrecognizable to every single one of his supposed colleagues. He simply doesn't exist.

The most charitable explanation offered by teachers (and, rest assured, none were feeling very sympathetic toward the author after reading what he wrote about our school) was that Brill "looked in" on a substitute teacher and was simply too lazy or too arrogant to check the facts, especially when such a figure fit so perfectly into his ceaseless anti-union narrative.

That said, not a single teacher had any memory even of a substitute fitting Brill's description, nor one so appallingly inept--particularly not the two female fourth-grade teachers who most assuredly do not bellow, do not allow students to wrestle on the floor and do not have goatees.

Of course, the idea of any serious journalist "looking in" on a classroom--even the classroom of a teacher who verifiably existed--and then using this anecdote to malign an entire school is, on the face of it, laughable. But what Brill does with this inept phantom is far worse, because the bellowing slob he foregrounds here is the only description of a public school teacher in the entirety of the book. And just to make sure the image sticks, Brill drudges it up a couple more times to ensure it's fresh in the reader's mind.

Engaging in the rhetorical trick found in much of his writing on education, Brill insinuates that this image alone represents the quality of our nation's public school teachers; that this disturbing scenario is what the teacher's union guarantees.

This, not our grotesque levels of inequality and poverty, is why our children are not learning like the children in Finland and Singapore--or for that matter, Harlem Success Academy and KIPP. And this, ultimately, is why America is not, in Barack Obama's coinage, "winning the future," and why we should destroy the unions and hand our school system over to the reformers and their millionaire hedge fund buddies.

YET HAD Brill been interested in doing something vaguely approximating an ethical job as a journalist, he could have walked another 15 seconds into PS 149 and "looked in" on say, Mississippi-born Rosa Brown, a master teacher who has been nurturing, guiding and educating New York's urban poor for over 30 years now--albeit not in "black stiletto heels" or "a black-and-pink crinoline dress."

Or he could have walked a little further still and looked in on South Bronx-born special educator and musical maestro Kevin Hill, who, for the past 28 years, has touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of kids, serving not merely as an excellent teacher, but as a surrogate brother, wise-but-stern uncle, and knowing father to many who return years later to thank him for the life lessons they did not understand while they were students.

Or he could have walked just a few steps more and sat in on a class with Jaffar Smith, who, until he was denied tenure, was the sole Muslim faculty member in a community where for many, Islam is the center of the world. Smith, an NYC Teaching Fellow who relocated his family from Egypt to teach in Harlem, worked tirelessly both as a teacher and as a kind of ambassador to the Harlem Muslim neighborhood, constantly making home visits and building community in a neighborhood that needed it desperately.

In short, Brill could have gone into any number of classrooms in 149 and witnessed teachers teaching and students learning--albeit, none with their "hair on fire" or engaging in semi-cult like practices such as demanding total eye contact. But he didn't.

Instead, Brill chose not to speak to a single teacher at 149. (By his own admission Brill spoke to no less than 18 former or present teachers at Harlem Success Academy.) Rather, Brill interviewed just one person in all of PS 149: Interim Acting principal Karol Burgess-Harper, a newly-minted product of Joel Klein's Leadership Academy who would eventually be removed from the school in a swirl of controversy.

(Before leaving her post, however, she gave unsatisfactory or "U" ratings to a fourth of the teaching staff in 149; in full disclosure, I was one of those teachers. I am also the anonymous union representative Brill so horrendously maligns in this section of the book).

As much as any other flaw in Class Warfare, Brill's total failure of due diligence renders his attempt to discredit public school teachers and the schools they teach in unreliable at best, and dangerous at worst.

Despite his depiction of it as a place where little good happens, today, PS149 continues to struggle to remain a school--and within that struggle, there is no question that true, deep education is actually taking place. And though you'd never know it from the picture Steven Brill paints of public education and the people who inhabit it, that kind of good is happening all over this country against all odds, every single day.

First published at Alternet.org.

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