Why Johnny Can’t Learn

A year-long report from a troubled Austin high school gives education reformers a failing grade.
Why Johnny Cant Learn
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

In the decade since the No Child Left Behind Act made “accountability” the buzzword of public education, underperforming schools across the country have endured not-so-private dramas of survival. At the insistence of the government, failing institutions must quickly turn themselves around or close up shop. Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform (Penguin Press, $25.95) is journalist Michael Brick’s account from inside one such institution, John H. Reagan High School, in East Austin. 

The book opens in the summer of 2009, when new principal Anabel Garza receives word from the state that she has one year to roll back Reagan’s failure rate (62 percent of all Reagan students failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in math). An upbeat administrator in her forties, Garza accepted the principal position against her friends’ advice; the school was infamous as the place where one student stabbed another to death in a stairwell. But Garza, whose life was changed by a caring teacher when she became pregnant at sixteen, wanted to save Reagan the way her high school had saved her. 

Brick embraces this high-school-as-sanctuary ideal too, fleshing it out by telling the story of Reagan’s origins as a place that mixed modern amenities (it was the first air-conditioned school in Austin) and a belief in diversity: “a wild, confused, and conflicted ecosystem of aspiring athletes, musicians, scientists, mathematicians, auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, janitors, housewives, programmers, criminals, maids, pilots, writers, financiers, nurses, et cetera.” But by the time Garza arrived, the school served almost exclusively poor black and Latino families, and the stabbing was its most notable recent accomplishment.

This is the point in a school’s downward trajectory where education reformers cast themselves as heroes, valiantly aiming their “crosshairs” at those who allow impoverished children to languish in the classroom. Brick, a former reporter for the New York Times who lives in East Austin, introduces the group as Reagan’s antagonists. Reformers, he asserts, are not educators but “profiteers” intent on “selling out” public education by imposing a corporate “reward and punishment system” ill-suited to the task of cultivating minds. 

This re-branding will be familiar to anyone steeped in the national education debate. Many of the terms are borrowed directly from education historian Diane Ravitch, a former ally of the reformers who has lately toured the country denouncing their approach. Brick’s version of this critique, grounded as it is in the real experiences of a real school, would be a welcome antidote to a debate too often shrouded in propaganda—if only it actually followed from the experiences he recounts.

But Brick provides no evidence of a corporate plot behind the reform push. Yes, a private entity might take over Reagan if the state shut it down, but the school would still be publicly funded, and there would be no guarantee of a profit. The K–12 education marketplace is hardly a gold mine. And some elements of market-style reform have, in fact, delivered better options for children at risk. (Even Ravitch has offered the Houston-founded KIPP charter school network a word of praise.)

Yet the boosterish view of reform, famously espoused in the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman,” has its blind spots too. Market-style reform has introduced a number of perverse incentives to the system. This is the subject of Brick’s most interesting reporting, though he doesn’t always seem to recognize the ramifications of what he has found. He describes, for instance, how Garza works to meet the state’s goal for the “completion rate,” an approximation of the number of students who graduate or get a GED in four years. Garza points out that if students fail to enroll or are absent often enough that she can kick them out, then they won’t be counted among the students who are expected to finish. And voilà! Reagan’s completion rate rises. “I’m going to run it till somebody stops me and calls me on it,” Garza says, explaining her plan to drop students with unexcused absences. 

Brick slips that quote in without making it clear that Garza has admitted to engaging in one of the most pernicious pitfalls of education reform. Pushed to meet her numbers, she has chosen to cut loose her weaker charges—those for whom reform was invented in the first place. Garza, for her part, doesn’t defend the practice as fair or right; it is simply what she has to do to meet her numbers. 

Brick deserves credit for noting Garza’s admission, but it’s odd that he offers it with so little comment. The difficulty might be that perverse incentives don’t fit into his larger frame. They prove the existence not of a conspiracy but of a puzzle—the challenge of encouraging educators to do a good thing (graduate more students) without setting them up to do a bad thing (abandon the weakest). The villain here isn’t a profiteer or even a lazy bureaucrat, it’s reality itself. Tackle one problem (a stultified bureaucracy in need of a dose of competition), and you’ll almost always introduce another (the winner-and-loser dynamic of the free market).

Brick also never remarks on the extent to which Garza relies on hope and instinct rather than any sense of best practice. One initiative, aimed at supporting students emotionally, mainly involves Garza popping into classrooms to tell students how much she loves them. Like the perverse incentives, this aimlessness proves not poor intentions but bewilderment before a goliath task. 

While almost everybody wants to improve public schools, very few know how to do so. Both sides in the debate assume that some outside force (teachers’ unions, profiteers) is actively stopping educators from doing good work. But there’s little evidence to back up Brick’s nostalgia for the American high school’s halcyon days as a happy melting pot. Set educators free, and they will still struggle, because education is really difficult work. 

The challenge is made all the mightier by the slippery meaning of “better

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