I had a chance to read Steven Brill’s book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, which came out last month. Brill is an excellent writer and does a strong job explaining the history of school reform, especially focusing in on the last three years and Race to the Top, the federal grant competition to encourage school reform.
I hope this book is widely read because it shows just how difficult it is going to be to improve education, including creating a personnel system that invests in improving teacher effectiveness.
Brill clearly took the time to learn about some complex issues, like how charter schools compare and what the federal No Child Left Behind program did to the education system in the U.S.
The book is over 400 pages, so it is not for anyone who just wants a quick skip through the status quo and a few debating points. If you take the time to sit down with the book, you’ll be rewarded with a ringside seat as events unfold. You’ll be introduced to about 30 key people, many of whom I’ve enjoyed working with in recent years. All have played a significant role in education reform, including Jon Schnur, Michelle Rhee, and Joel Klein.
There are some surprising facts too. One of the things that amazed me was the high proportion of people pushing for education reform who had spent time at Teach For America, the non-profit group that trains and places teachers in schools in low-income communities.
I was impressed by the key role that the group Democrats for Education Reform has played in encouraging Democrats to be willing to make changes that the teachers union resists. Brill doesn’t cover the challenges in getting Republican politicians to get behind reform as well as he does the Democrats though.
President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan come across very well in speaking up passionately for a system that has to do better for the children.
The person that Brill spent the most time talking to in preparing the book is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union. Overall, he shows sympathy for the position she is in as a union leader, but he does highlight some places where she presents the union in a more reasonable light than their actual behavior would justify.
The book suggests that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed off from pushing for as much change as Klein, chancellor of the city’s Department of Education for eight years, was asking for and that his pension generosity was a mistake. If someone like Bloomberg – who is far braver and more committed to change than most politicians – shies away from the toughest part of changing the work rules and personnel system, then it shows how hard it is going to be.
Brill does some things really well - the foundation’s work on teacher effectiveness is clearly explained. But he doesn’t get everything right. He refers to the Common Core as a curriculum when, in fact, it is a set of standards on which curriculum will be based. And there’s the anecdote he tells about my having a pinball machine with Joel Klein’s head on it that I played during the Department of Justice antitrust trial against Microsoft in the 1990s (Klein was the lead prosecutor in the case). I can understand why he might want to include that great anecdote but I hate to disappoint him by saying it’s not true.
Overall, this book gives a real sense of the challenges that lay ahead for us in improving education in this country and it’s an important one for anyone who cares about an issue which ultimately affects us all.