It often takes an essay by a high-profile writer to confirm what lesser known writers have long maintained. I thought of this once again after reading "Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools" by Steven Brill that was published in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 13.
Brill came to prominence when his piece, "The Rubber Room", appeared in The New Yorker on Aug. 31, 2009. He described in great detail how about 600 teachers who are charged with a variety of offenses are paid their full salaries and benefits while sitting in six rooms in New York City's five boroughs. Officially known as Temporary Reassignment Centers, the venues are known collectively as the Rubber Rooms. Teachers have been there for an average of three years.
The piece vaulted Brill into the spotlight, which he has used to claim expertise on educational issues. Yet nothing he writes in the WSJ is new. Readers of this column know that I've often expressed doubts about the sustainability and scalability of high-flying schools. What Brill does is to state the obvious. Of course a few teachers can perform heroically for short periods of time in certain schools. They deserve great credit for their accomplishments, but they cannot be cloned sufficiently to staff the nation's 95,000 K-12 public schools.
Brill concedes this point, but then he backpedals: "Their success has punctured the myth that social and cultural deficits prevent poor, minority children from excelling academically - an argument that is used by the teachers' unions to excuse systemic school failure." No one says that a few teachers in a few schools cannot help students overcome the shortcomings they bring to class through no fault of their own. The point is that their achievements are aberrations.
Brill compounds his misunderstanding of the issue by arguing that the solution is to "figure out a realistic way to motivate and enable the less-than-extraordinary teachers in the rank and file." The operative word is "realistic." Researchers have said that in-school factors account for only about one-third of student achievement. The balance comes from the neighborhood and the family. That's being realistic because schools are not Lourdes.
In making his proposal, Brill curiously says nothing about the appalling teacher attrition rate. Half of new teachers quit the profession after five years. For teachers in inner-city schools, half leave within three years. Forget the $2.2 billion cost of replacing those who leave the field. Instead, let's focus on the reasons teachers quit. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, teachers cite a lack of support and poor working conditions among the primary factors. Brill says that we need to find a way to "motivate and enable" the rank and file. But these teachers are already motivated. What they are not, however, are masochists.
Rather than listen to Brill, I suggest that readers consider what James Traub wrote in The New York Times Magazine on Jan. 16, 2000 ("What No School Can Do"). The title alone reveals his theme: "How powerful can this one institution be in the face of the kind of disadvantages that so many ghetto children bring with them to the schoolhouse door, and return to at home?"