The Nation's Pulse

Beyond Steven Brill

Without good old-fashioned middle-class ideals, what good is school reform?

By From the November 2011 issue

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Temptations to bash the teachers unions are, confessedly, immense. And omnipresent--those scenes, for instance, last winter at the Wisconsin statehouse, aswarm then with obnoxious public employee union members, teachers included, behaving as though the public had elected them, and not Governor Scott Walker, to sort out the state's economic tribulations.

Steven Brill's new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools (Simon & Schuster) bombards the teacher unions with scorn and statistics. Conversely, it celebrates the efforts of school reformers such as Wendy Kopp of Teach for America. It's being widely reviewed and cited, not least on account of Brill's prominence as the founder of Court TV (now truTV).

The book is certainly welcome, even if all it achieves is diversion of the unions from their favorite tasks--collecting dues and protecting the jobs of inferior teachers. "Truly effective teaching," zealous and inspirational, Brill argues, is the desideratum for which we should strive. Such teaching can "overcome student indifference, parental disengagement and poverty." Which, in at least a limited sense, must surely be the case. The assertion, all the same, rubs the wrong way against assertions that, it strikes me, we might want to check out with the attention normally reserved for headline topics like charter schools and crusading superintendents.

Brill puts the bad-schools monkey on the unions' back. Is that its only natural habitat? Consider an essay in the New York Times of last September 4. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz recounts his battle with dyslexia. He remembers how the dyslexic child he was found himself seated with two others like him at a separate table in the classroom, away from the normal kids. He couldn't tie his shoes or tell time. "I not only couldn't read but often couldn't hear or understand what was being said to me.…My situation then seemed hopeless."

So he got from there to here…how, precisely? "My mother read the one thing I would listen to--Blackhawk comics--over and over again, hoping against hope that by some leap of faith or chance I would start to identify letters and then begin to arrange them into words and sentences, and begin the intuitive, often magical, process of turning written language into spoken language.

"One night, lying in bed as she read to me, I realized that if I was ever going to learn to read I would have to teach myself." And so he willed himself into "being" an invented character who could both read and write. "Starting that night, I'd lie in bed silently imitating the words my mother read, imagining the taste, heft and ring of each sound as if it were coming out of my mouth.…And suddenly I was reading."

The effects of families on learning and motivation are profound. What we may no longer grasp is that those efforts are pivotal. I offer a thesis: the United States can have the greatest schools in the history of humanity--provided it supports the cultural conditions for such schools. Those conditions, I posit, include families reflexively committed to the educational enterprise, unwilling to turn away from it for frothier considerations. Such a thesis is less reckless than it possibly sounds. It is grounded in experience (that "better guide than reason," John Dickinson called it). We have walked this ground before. We know its contours.

A good school is a school whose pupils have parents who care about their children's schooling--and demonstrate that care in ways direct and indirect. By policing homework. By carrying on intelligent conversation. By inspecting report cards. By following in the footsteps of Philip Schultz's mother, with A. A. Milne in hand, or just Blackhawk comics: reading, reading, reading. By…well, you know what I'm talking about, through that experience of which I spoke, or possibly just through intuition. The so-called royal road to learning leads, one might say, through the family kitchen.

There is a chirpy 1950s feel to this exhortation: Oh, David, oh, Ricky, Dad's home, shall we gather around the table for some good old Πr2? Let us step apart from the pitying stereotype. The '50s were the high tide of middle-classness in America. Social and economic success engendered the desire for more of the same. Ambition and self-respect, not to mention hard work, were OK. In fact, they were good. The middle class was a demanding class. It insisted on standards of a certain sort: not the highest in history, perhaps, but higher than anything seen around this place since then.

The social revolution that began in the early 1960s--instituted, ironically, by the children of the middle classes--changed the culture of the public schools. The old stodginess (as some saw it) was out; mere vitality, or just occasional curiosity, was in. The culture of the revolution was egalitarian: A's for everyone, no D's, no F's, for sure. It was as though a whole society, marching with some order and exertion toward a distant goal, stopped suddenly, unbuckled its belt, sat down for a rest, sporadically fell back into line, walked a few paces, more raggedly than before, then sat down again. In due course, rather than conning Worsdworth, students were agitating for the right to protest war and racism. The Age of Relaxation commenced. We live in it yet.

THE OLD MIDDLE-CLASS ideals aren't gone. In middle- and upper-middle-class communities, parents who don't volunteer at the elementary school, or supervise homework, or (preferably) both, are rare birds. Their children's public schools thrive, as do the private schools--Christian ones, particularly--that have sprung up to intensify the educational experience for families with the wherewithal. Notice additionally the steadily growing number of middle-class families that teach their children at home. I used to shake my head at such people. How was this thing going to be made to work? Well, it does work, so far as I can judge. The parents who undertake the vast and all-absorbing task of homeschooling are in earnest. They want the same things little Ricky and little David's parents wanted for their kids in days of yore. They may indeed want those things more intently. Charter schools, at the public level, respond to and serve the same instincts: that my child (never mind my address, my job, my race or color) should receive the same strict, generous care the children of more affluent parents receive.

We get back to want. In order to get, you first (as a general rule) have to want. What any culture wants--truly, deeply wants--it gets eventually. The educational standards and outcomes we used to have, we somehow don't want anymore--possibly even feel guilty about expecting. Our failure to get the good things we kind of, but insufficiently, want, we blame on someone else. The teacher unions, yes! The government, for not paying the teachers enough in the first place!

What might we do, culturally speaking, to get good schools again? Many may not agree with my own prescription, but I'd begin as a nation and a society, using law, example, and precept to rebuild the marriage culture, wherein most people not so long ago married and stayed that way, "for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer." Such a creed has to be preached without intermission, in churches, in schools, in the media, not least in the entertainment industry, where these days it draws the most derision.

The schools of the '50s, and earlier, were far from perfect. At least they reflected a general social commitment to work and achievement, a commitment fostered by families as essential to their own well-being and to the long-term good of society. Can we go home again? Maybe so, maybe not--but one shudders to think of the alternatives.

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.