As state and local authorities across the country close schools whose test scores don’t make the cut, Michael Brick’s book Saving the School investigates what the U.S. may be throwing away in the rush to shut down such institutions.
An East Austin resident and former New York Times reporter, Brick wrote a journalist’s account of a year at Reagan High, an underperforming school where about two-thirds of the students had consistently failed the TAKS in math. Once known for its state football championships and educational achievements, Reagan High was more recently famous for a 2003 case in which one student admitted to fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend in a stairwell.
The book opens in 2009, when the state had rated the school academically unacceptable for four years running. If the school failed to “make the numbers,” the state education commissioner could have shut Reagan down. Brick’s nonfiction account follows the lives of the principal, the basketball coach, a chemistry teacher and several students through the 2009-10 school year, when the school struggled to raise its scores enough to keep its doors open.
Brick sat down with the Tribune to talk about standardized testing; what role music, art and sports programs play in public education; his vision of public high schools as central to local communities; and how the real-life characters in his book faced up under the intense pressure to improve test scores at Reagan High.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TT: What inspired you to write this book?
Brick: There’s three main journalistic questions I wanted to look at: the pressure of this intense testing combined with the sort of vilification of teachers that’s gone on in this country in the last few years. I wanted to see how people performed and lived their lives under that kind of intense pressure. I wanted to get a sense of what is being or might be lost in the rush to shut down schools that are classified as troubled. And, most importantly, I hoped to come away from this with a sense of what we can learn as a country about education policy from it.
TT: During your reporting at Reagan High, what new insights did you gain about the challenges facing public education?
Brick: I learned a lot about how people respond under pressure. I learned a lot about the pressures that these people are facing. I learned, most importantly, that in policy terms, we’re doubling down on standardized testing in this country and accountability. And having a person at the front of a classroom or in the principal’s office who cares a whole hell of a lot isn’t going to solve problems or save schools by itself. But it’s an indispensable part of any education program that we hope to have work.
TT: When you’re talking about accountability and test scores, do you think those are good measures of a school's success?
Brick: Standards are good, tests are good. I think standardized tests can even be good in moderation. Learning has to be thought about in a big-tent sort of a way, and it has to have room for a lot of different ways of learning, a lot of different things to be learned. I think we’ve come to standardized testing as the end-all, be-all of education, and I think we need to take a step back from that. And I hope that’s what I’ve been able to do with the book.
TT: How have you shown this in your book?
Brick: The teachers, the principal, the coach, the music director at the Reagan High School Band, and all of the students are ordinary people under extraordinary, intense pressure who come through in really surprising ways for each other, for themselves. And I think their experiences have a lot to show us about what can be accomplished if we treat these tests as part of this “balanced breakfast,” as they used to say in the cereal commercials.
TT: What’s happening at Reagan High now? Is it headed in a better direction?
Brick: At the end of that year, they raised scores just enough to stave off the closure order and, more importantly, to lift the academically unacceptable designation from the state. And that label wasn’t just a sort of conceptual thing; it had real-life consequences. Parents, they literally get a letter in their mailbox that says, "The school that you live near is rated academically unacceptable. If you want, you can transfer your kid to another school." That leaves behind kids with fewer resources, kids who need more help, and this becomes kind of a downward spiral.
Getting that designation lifted was a huge step. It gave the teachers and administrators at Reagan a little bit of breathing room, and I think what they were smart to recognize — and this is one of the major themes of what you see play out in the book — is that getting that label lifted, bringing scores up, was step one. A longer-term effort [is still needed] to make it the school that inspires devotion again, to make it, without sounding corny, the center of the community again. And that’s what they’re building toward now.
TT: How do people go about inspiring devotion and making a school the center of the community?
Brick: Schools have been a rallying point: It’s where you meet mentors. It’s where your older brother or sister went and set a path for you. And this plays out over the course of generations. It’s a place where you’ve got a shared history, whether it’s through sports, or whether through the arts, school plays, the marching band — it’s a place where you can find your path when you’re sort of thrown together with other people through accident and geography. And that sort of continuity over the course of generations is what I was alluding to earlier about what we might be throwing away in the rush to shut down troubled schools.