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A critique of Brill’s “Class Warfare”

Blog post by Van Schoales on EdNewsColorado, Aug. 31, 2011. Copyright ©
View original post here.

It’s not often I would describe a book on education reform as a page-turner, but Steven Brill’s book Class Warfare kept me engaged late into the night. I thought “Wow, someone has finally described some of the political battles underlying the current reform wars.”

Brill’s book is a dramatic rendering of a few of the characters (friends like Democrats for Education Reform chief Joe Williams and Colorado State Sen. Mike Johnston) and the work undertaken to reform public education in this country.

While there is much that has been reported by others about Teach for America, KIPP, high performing charters and heroic figures like Wendy Kopp and Eva Moskowitz in the education reform movement, Brill manages to pull it all together into a compelling narrative about state and federal education policy change.

Brill captures many of the interconnecting relationships between the practioners in schools and the policy advocates at the city, state and federal levels. He describes how many of the players like Jon Schnur came to education reform and how Alan Bersin’s work in San Diego led to the work of Michelle Rhee in DC and Joel Klein in New York. He also does a good job of showing how instrumental Race to the Top was to the reform movement, while shedding light on the drama around choosing states. The book reminded me of a fast paced education reform version of All the Presidents’ Men or the British series Traffik without the sex, drugs, violence and crime (hey, it’s public education).

My primary critique of the book has to do with Brill being fast and loose with some of the facts, and his primary target of criticism being the teachers’ unions. Yes, the teacher unions are a huge political obstacle in terms of reform but they are hardly the only one. The teacher unions are the largest contributors to Democratic Party candidates. They are the biggest funder to any party and as Brill reminds us it is coming out of taxpayer funds to pay teachers. This funding makes it difficult to get Democrats to support reforms that would help most of their constituents’ kids.

Anyone that has spent time running a school or in the classroom knows that unions are only one of the challenges in terms of improving public education. Brill even implies this when he makes the nutty suggestion that Randy Weingarten be the next NYC chancellor.

Administrators, school boards and our own experiences and expectations about schools are as much of a challenge as the teacher unions. We would still have a great distance to go in terms of creating a great public education system even if Scott Walker or Chris Christie succeeded in slaying the teachers’ unions, which they are unlikely to do.

As an insider that was involved in a number of events, policy changes and organizations described in the book, I thought Brill got many of the big picture issues and battles right, though the closer to the ground he flew, the more he oversimplified or got things wrong. This ‘war,’ like the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, becomes much more complicated when you get closer to the ground and understand more about what people are actually doing.

For instance the descriptions of the Democrats for Education Reform during the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and the work to pass Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness legislation (S.B 191) were mostly accurate in their implications but missed key aspects of what and how they occurred. The DFER-DNC meeting was mostly supported by my former employer, the Piton Foundation, not the big national foundations as was reported.

As critical as Johnston and the AFT’s Brenda Smith were to passage of SB 191, it would have not passed had there not been support by many other legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Senator Spence, Representatives Murray and Scanlan along with Speaker Carroll, Lt. Governor O’Brien, Colorado Education Commissioner Jones and a broad coalition of business, education, and civil rights groups, mostly coordinated by Colorado DFER and Colorado Stand for Children. See here for more details.

Overall I’d highly recommend the book to anyone interested in education reform and the connection between money, politics, policy and practice in education. Class Warfare makes an important contribution in telling a few of the stories behind what many of us feel is the civil rights fight of our generation.