Tolstoy v. Nabokov on "failing schools"
August 20, 2011, 02:04 PM
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Sara Mosle, a schoolteacher who has been one of the more realistic critics of the education reform bandwagon, reviews Steven Brill`s book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix American`s Schools:
Brill, however, insists that only “union critics of charter schools” believe successful charters “ ‘skim’ from the community’s most intelligent students and committed families,” adding, “None of the actual data supports this.” But in fact, according to Tough, KIPP’s own “internal statistics” show that its students in the South Bronx “arrived scoring better on average on tests than typical children in their neighborhoods.” And not just a little better: on reading tests prior to entering KIPP, Tough writes, “students often scored above the average for the entire city.” 
KIPP then builds on this sturdy foundation — and far more successfully than most charters, for which it deserves praise and keen attention to its methods. But KIPP and other successful charters have not yet shown they can succeed with every kind of student within a single school district, or even, for that matter, a single neighborhood. If we can’t make such distinctions, how will we ever help all children achieve? ...


Well, maybe we won`t ever help all children achieve. Maybe, what we should try to be doing is to do better overall than we`re doing now. Maybe we have to leave some child behind to help the rest because if we focus on the worst, we`re going to hurt the rest.

From that perspective, if KIPP is skimming the hardest working students from the slums, well, that`s great. We should encourage more and different kinds of skimming. If some kids aren`t really interested in English literature, but are really interested in auto body repair, well, let`s skim them into hands-on apprentice programs.

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? 
Brill likens the battle over the nation’s schools to “warfare,” but the better analogy may be to the war on cancer. For years, scientists hoped a magic pill would cure this ravaging disease. But increasingly, doctors have recognized that they will have to fight a multifronted war, as cancers (like failing schools) aren’t all alike. Each comes with its own complex etiology. 
Nabokov didn`t believe Tolstoy`s opening line in Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Nabokov`s sci-fi novel Ada opens with a quote from an alternative universe Tolstoy: "`All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike.`" 


As Nabokov explained to an interviewer somewhere or other, the reasons for familial unhappiness tend to be commonplace: infidelity, alcoholism, lack of money, ill-temper, spite, stupidity, and so forth. Now, those banal ingredients might lead to some bizarre outcomes manifestations of unhappiness, but the bases tend to be boring. In contrast, Nabokov argued, happy families tend to have their unique private jokes, their eccentric balances, and so forth. Mr. Nabokov, for example, was convinced he was a genius and was mostly amused that the rest of the world hadn`t noticed. (In fact, the rest of the world kept trying to kill Nabokov, driving him out of Russia in 1918, Germany in 1936, and France in 1940, but not even totalitarianism and world wars were a downer to Nabokov. And Mrs. Nabokov agreed with her husband`s estimation of himself, and put up with ridiculous behavior from him (such as his refusing to let them live in the same house for more than one year to keep from dimming his memories of his lost estate in Russia) because he was a genius. When he was 59 when Lolita was published in America in 1958, suddenly the whole world agreed with them.

Kids, don`t try this at home when you are a married grown-up. It probably won`t work.
Really bad schools tend to have somewhat unusual reasons for being really bad. For example, one high school in South Central L.A. had terrible (even by the standards of South Central) attendance. It turned out that boys weren`t coming to school because they couldn`t play basketball at recess and lunch. (The boys weren`t asking for much — they just wanted to be allowed to play pickup basketball.) Why not? Because the teachers had stopped parking in their assigned parking lot because their cars kept getting broken into. Instead, they parked on the basketball courts right outside their classrooms, where they could keep an eye on their cars. The Green Dot charter was given control of that school, and quickly got some money together and fixed the fence around the teachers` parking lot, which freed up the basketball courts, which raised attendance. 
So, there`s a Tolstoyan view of what why this school was so really bad. But, after they fixed its unique problem, the school was still average bad. Why? For the non-Tolstoyan reason that it was in of South Central L.A. and thus full of average South Central L.A. students. The depressingly boring reason why most failing schools fail is because they are full of failing students.
So, maybe we need solutions that will skim as many kids as feasible into a variety of schools or programs that will motivate individual students. But, we have to give up the debilitating myth that the goal of school reform should be to "help all children achieve" at some standard level.