Steven Brill: Brilliant or bonkers?
Jay Mathews isn’t the only smart person to rave about Steve Brill’s new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Tiger-mom Amy Chua, Governor Chris Christie, Mayor Cory Booker, and Tom Brokaw are all pumped about it, too, or so they say on the dust jacket.
Brill is relatively new to the ed-reform wars—which may have been one of his prime assets while penning this volume; he doesn’t appear to have any particular ax to grind or ideology to advance. Though a neophyte in this realm, he’s a veteran journalist, and a fine one at that, who first passed through the ed-reform looking glass when reporting on New York’s notorious (thanks to Brill) “rubber rooms” for The New Yorker. He’s Gotham-based, himself, and many of the battle scenes in this long but compelling tome are situated there. (Joel Klein and Randi Weingarten get the most mentions in a fifteen-page index.)
His approach resembles Bob Woodward’s recent volumes on the real wars of the Bush and Obama eras: plenty of inside scoops, vivid quotes, extensive reportage, evocative vignettes and telling examples, lots of short chapters, a fast-paced narrative, and an ample supply of couldn’t-invent-‘em characters.
Not many ed-reform books are like this (Joe Williams's came close) and Brill’s repays attention, not just because it’s a rollicking romp but because it works through many issues, conflicts, interests, episodes, and people and comes to a measured set of conclusions that won’t please anyone in particular but deserve serious reflection. If you want just the conclusions, you could limit yourself to Brill’s final chapter (“A marathon, not a sprint”), but then you’d miss all the evidence that leads up to it.
Still, a few wee excerpts from that chapter will give you both the flavor, some of the wisdom, and at least a couple of ideas that seem totally harebrained at the start but, in the context of his overall examination, may not be so crazy after all.
* “Dave Levin…was giving me a tour one afternoon of KIPP Infinity in upper Manhattan…. ‘So you must feel pretty good,’ I said. ‘Well, that’s it, I don’t,’ he replied. ‘I’m still failing 60 percent of the time.’”
* “Levin acknowledged that he was at least free to try because he was not straitjacketed by a union contract.…Then he stopped, looked up, and delivered a dose of reality: ‘If you tore up every union contract in the country…then you would have to train and motivate not 70,000 or 80,000 teachers…but 3 million teachers.”
* “In the summer of 2010, when I heard Arne Duncan remark that ‘you can’t fire your way to the top,’ I thought it a clever turn of phrase intended to mollify the unions. Duncan was actually making an important point. For, as Levin explained, the bigger hurdle is that ‘you can’t expect 3 million people, or even a half million, to be as talented as our [KIPP] teachers are, or as willing to work these kinds of hours and do this as intensely as they do. You have to devise support systems…to make moderately talented people better. You can’t do this by depending only on the kinds of exceptional people we have around here.’”
* “‘I feel overwhelmed, underappreciated, and underpaid,’ one Harlem Success teacher told me. ‘I work from 7:30 to 5:30 in the building and then go home and work some more….I think we are doing a great job so I keep at it. But there is no way I can do this beyond another year or two….This model just cannot scale.’”
* “[Geoffrey] Canada is an extraordinary person. So is Dave Levin. And Wendy Kopp. And Jessica Reid. So are thousands of spectacular, equally driven teachers in traditional public schools across the country. We can be led and inspired by extraordinary men and women….But they will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out a realistic way to motivate and enable the less than extraordinary in the rank and file….”
* “In fact, if Michael Bloomberg really wanted to go for a touchdown in education reform…he could try the ultimate Nixon-to-China play: He would…make Randi Weingarten the schools chancellor….As chancellor, Weingarten would have to shed her habit of making offhand overstatements than can easily be disproved…but…I can see her now standing with Bloomberg…declaring that the times have changed….Only now her constituency would be the children.”
* “This Weingarten-as-chancellor fantasy aside, the fact is that unions and their leaders can and should be enlisted to help stand up those in the rank and file who are well-motivated and able but are not extraordinary. That doesn’t mean yielding to the unions’ narrow interests; it means continuing to enhance the political climate and, with it, the backbone of the political leaders who negotiate with the unions, so that the unions will yield to the interests of the children their members are supposed to serve.”
And on he goes. Is the whole thing a naïve, wishful-thinking fantasy? Or is Brill precisely correct to suggest that the only way to bring reform to scale is to figure out how to enlist—and enable—the mass of educators who teach the mass of U.S. kids? “Waiting for the scalable solution, as the hedge funders would call it,” he observes, “is no better than waiting for Superman.”
Yes, he wants it both ways: “Tough legislation to trump the unions, such as that pushed by Johnston in Colorado, is necessary. But taking the next step and eliminating the unions is not likely to improve schools….If the country has to sign up the platoons that Dave Levin says are needed, then giving teachers some say, through their representatives, about their professional lives…is a long-term positive, not a negative.”
Still, we’ve come a considerable distance, he concludes: “Looked at from the perspective of how far they’ve come from Wendy Kopp’s college thesis, from Jon Schnur’s fruitless drafting of speeches for Al Gore and John Kerry, from Congressman George Miller’s losing a 434-1 vote on teacher certification and performance pay, from Bill and Melinda Gates’s or Eli Broad’s early missteps in education philanthropy, from Joel Klein’s inability to order his own human resources department to produce data on teacher effectiveness…they should all be taking bows.”
“But this is only the first mile of the marathon.”
How much endurance do you have?
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