I’ve come to accept that part of effective blogging is frequently dismissed by accusations of “taking things out of context.” This is a fair enough point, but the most effective bloggers do so for the purpose of advancing debate and providing analysis. The blogging writing form has become accepted as even well-know journalists are using it now to promote their own endeavors.
Why I felt the need to explain this here is because I’m about to use someone’s piece…..about someone else’s. On Sunday the well-respected New York Times Book Review will publish a review of Steve Brill’s Class Warfare by Sara Mosle.
It is the reviewer, Mosle, whom readers of this blog will find fascinating. In setting up her piece by detailing Brill’s resume as a Yale-educated lawyer and TV mogul- Mosle introduces herself to readers.
I say this as someone whom Brill might pick for a jury pool. I taught for three years in New York as a charter member of Teach for America (TFA) and had my own run-ins with the union. (An article I wrote, which praised (Wendy)Kopp’s then-fledgling organization and made some of the same criticisms Brill does, angered my union representative.) This fall, my daughter will be attending public school, and I’ll be teaching at a private, reform-minded urban academy in New Jersey.
Yet Mosle is much more than this. Her career in journalism is significant. She has penned articles for the New Yorker, Slate and was once editor of New York Times Magazine. She’s established a niche in book review and most particularly so of books on education topics. Mosle’s own experience as a teacher lends to a level of credibility that her subject, Brill, does not have and it makes her probings into Brill’s book worth reading. Mosle offers this keen observation and criticism of her former TFA colleagues powerful grip on the nation’s education policy.
Brill adeptly shows how ideas can become a movement. Many of his subjects met in Teach for America, went on to promote one another’s hiring or research and are now being financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But what Brill regards as the groundswell of a welcome revolution begins to sound worryingly like an echo chamber, with everyone talking to the same few people and reading the same e-mail blasts.
Thanks to these reformers’ coordinated push, their agenda is now driving President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. As Brill reports, educators supporting different, equally plausible reforms were discouraged from competing for the contest’s unprecedented $4.35 billion in funding. By design, judges could award points only to those proposals that advanced charters (despite their mixed record) and used student test scores to evaluate teacher performance (in a still-unproven intervention).
This unwillingness to entertain other reforms, I think, is partly what has animated some of the movement’s critics, like the education historian Diane Ravitch, who recently reversed her longstanding support for high-stakes testing and charters (and whom Brill dismisses in just four pages, much of which he devotes not to the substance of her arguments but to distracting questions about whether she has ever accepted speaking fees from unions). The problem isn’t just that the hard evidence, looked at dispassionately, doesn’t always support reformers’ claims. It’s that the insurgents are in danger of becoming the very thing they once (rightly) rose up against: subject to groupthink, reluctant to hear opposing views or to work with anyone perceived to be on the other side.
Sometimes the messenger is important and it certainly is here. Mosle, a Princeton grad and one of the original Teach for America corp members, is representative of the “best and brightest” who Kopp envisioned as saviors inside the classrooms of America’s schools. Mosle is not alone as someone with TFA chops who’s critical of the ed reform model Kopp’s would-be disciples are preaching. New York math teacher – and fellow TFA alum, Gary Rubinstein is another.
While Brill clearly drinks the corporate ed reform Kool-aid and spews the usual anti-union, pro-charter school talking points, his personal notoriety has brought the debate further into the open. As Brill illustrates and Mosle confirms, a small and well-connected clique is driving the nation’s education policy. Mosle’s review may turn out to be an important one.