“No Dog in this Fight”

When someone says:

I had no dog in this fight

Look out!  What they are saying is that they do (or did), but don’t want to admit it.  Personally, I have never seen any claim of impartiality that proved true.  I know, that’s a blanket statement, and I am sure instances could be By Eurobas (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsdredged up where someone really was objective… but I can’t think of one.  Humans operate from subjective stances necessitated by their physical limitations, cultural backgrounds, and personal experiences.  No one comes to anything without these.

Steven Brill, whose book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools
came out last week, makes his own claim to impartiality in the piece for Reuters linked above.  The irony is that he starts with a story about the danger of taking anyone’s statements at face value, and then expects us to accept his own.  What makes it doubly so is that his claim isn’t that he has done this or that, but that he is impartial.

Very quickly, he invokes as evidence his own assumptions as to why others act, making it clear that, even if he did start out impartial (not likely), he is no longer so:

I watched assistant principals in the public schools mostly stay in their offices, fearing they would be accused by the union of harassment if they observed and coached too much.

Judge Judy would stop him right there.  He can’t know what’s going on in the minds of others or what their motivations really are.  He is making assumptions… even if one or two of them have admitted such fears to him (what about the others?  And were they making objective statements themselves?).

Brill also plays rhetorical games in his essay, making it clear that he has long since thrown any pretense towards objectivity out the window:

Sitting in successful charter schools and then the failing public schools in the same communities and watching what they do differently… helped cut through the rhetoric about what makes some schools effective and others failures.

The implication here is that charter schools are “successful” and that public schools are “failing.”  Thing is, there are successful public schools and failing charter schools aplenty.  The fact of being a charter school does not lead to success any more than the fact of being a public school leads to failure, but the implication of his statement is just that.  Actually, the two operate in completely different situations and cannot be simply compared one-on-one: charter schools have options (and not simply because they are non-union) unavailable to public schools.  Brill, a journalist by trade, knows full well what he is doing when he writes such sentences… and it has nothing to do with impartiality.

When Brill gets around to talking about Diane Ravitch, rather that honestly characterizing her positions, he writes:

there is no there there. Ravitch presents no alternative path; she mischaracterizes the reformers’ arguments (by saying, for example, that they want to rely solely on test scores when they always say that rigorous classroom observations and other subjective evaluations should be at least as much, if not more, a part of the equation); and , as with other anti-reformers, she cherry-picks all kinds of data, lunging for whatever she can.

He really should, were he trying to do more than dismiss her, grapple with what she says rather than stating what he thinks she says in simplistic and unfair terms.  (Yes, I am doing a bit the same to him, but I make no pretense to objectivity and am making use of his words directly.)

Brill also continuously tells us how many papers he has gone through, how many people he has talked to… making the argument that he, then, knows best.  Until we’ve gone through it all, we can’t know as much.  Not even, I would like to ask, if we’ve actual classroom experience (something that, as far as I can tell, he lacks)?

All of this is prelude to what he presents as “The Facts”:

  • American schools are failing.  He is “amazed” that anyone would deny this, but provides no evidence for it.  American schools, though, are a patchwork, as they have ever been (especially under segregation), some doing well, others poorly.  The difference today is that we are looking at the whole and not simply at the middle-class part.
  • It is not a matter of money.  We spend more, he says, and get “lousy” results.  He might want to take a look at the Scarsdale, NY schools, where “more” is indeed spent, and ask if the results are lousy.
  • Class size doesn’t matter.  This is only a claim one who has never spent a semester before a class can make.  It does matter: a single teacher can only do so much.
  • Charter schools are not the answer alone.  Well, that’s not even a fact on the face of it, but an assertion.

Enough.  Brill goes on, and I read on (and you can, too), but he retreats into false balance (neither side is completely right) and solutions that, as far as I can tell, are not solutions at all but are an outsider’s wishful thinking.

Certainly, we should all be working to improve our schools, but let’s all (Brill included) start from our own biases.  Let’s stop saying we (each of us) are the ones who determine what the facts are and what the solutions should be and start working rather than merely pontificating.  That way, maybe we can learn from each other.  Brill, his high self-esteem to the contrary, does not know everything about education, not for all his brilliance as a journalist or hours spent pouring over documents or talking to people.

Brill, if he really wants to learn about education enough to effectively help reform it, could take some time off from his so-called “journalism” and try working in a classroom for a year or two.

His “facts,” after that, would be quite a bit different.  As his solutions would probably be.

Until then, though I’ll listen to him and take him seriously (something he is not doing, for example, with Ravitch, though he claims to have read her work–he misrepresents her and criticizes her for not doing what she never claimed to be doing), I doubt he will really contribute much towards improving our schools.

Aaron Barlow | Associate Professor, New York City College of Technology.

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  • Maria

    So what’s YOUR point? You’ve made it clear you don’t agree with Mr. Brill.

    OK.

    EZ enough to do.

    I don’t agree with you Mr. Barlow.

    There, see how easy it is.

    But you put yourself out there as a pundit so what’s your position on the actual issue which is, I believe, education?

    • The point is, you can’t have your own facts. And you can’t pretend to objectivity. Facts aren’t personal and aren’t decided on by fiat, as Brill does. And no one is objective… that’s one of the consequences of being human.

      By the way, thanks for giving me a good chuckle.

      If you want my “position” on education (which isn’t the point of the article, by the way), just look at my blog at http://audsandens.blogspot.com.