The Progressive Impulse

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I'm sure Sara Mosle's review of Steven Brill's new book on school reform will get a lot of attention. There's a lot of good stuff in there, but I thought her points about the book, toward the end, were particularly strong:


At times, I couldn't help wishing Brill had concentrated less on his reformers' similarities than on their differences. According to him, Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who has helped bankroll Teach for America, regards Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, with admirable pragmatism, as someone he can work with. Bill Gates decided not to back Michelle Rhee's reforms in Washington because he regarded her as too much of a "bomb thrower." Gates also expresses wise frustration that none of Brill's favorite data crunchers can actually explain what an effective teacher looks like. (Toward this end, Doug Lemov of the Uncommon Schools charter network has promisingly begun videotaping and analyzing top teachers to identify concrete tools educators can use to improve.) 

By book's end, even Brill begins to feel the cognitive dissonance. He quotes a KIPP founder who concedes that the program relies on superhuman talent that can never be duplicated in large numbers. And sure enough, an educator whom Brill has held up the entire book as a model of reform unexpectedly quits, citing burnout and an unsustainable workload at her Harlem charter. 

Then another reform-­minded teacher at the same school confesses she can't possibly keep up the pace. "This model just cannot scale," she declares flatly. After relentlessly criticizing Weingarten, Brill suddenly suggests, in a "Nixon-to-China" move, that she become New York's next schools chancellor. "The lesson," Brill belatedly discovers, is that reformers need to collaborate with unions, if only because they are "the organizational link to enable school improvement to expand beyond the ability of the extraordinary people to work extraordinary hours." But isn't this merely what the reform movement's more thoughtful critics have been saying all along?

I really would have liked to read the book that Mosle hints at -- one that paints a more complicated picture, as opposed to yet another jeremiad against the evils of unions. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/08/the-progressive-impulse/243851/