(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
I finally got the chance to read Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill, a noted journalist and entrepreneur, has written the first draft of recent ed-reform history, mostly from the perspective of the Cool Kids and those associated with Democrats for Education Reform.
Class Warfare is both interesting and readable. I did sometimes find myself wondering if there was much anything going on in education reform in the last few years outside of the Northeast corridor. I also suspect that some of the reforms praised in the book might struggle to maintain their reputations with a close reading of the fine print of the statutes.
Brill confesses his liberal leanings, and the epic battles over education reform in places like New York City and Washington DC deserve the level of detail they receive. Someone else will have to write the conservative version of this book, Brill’s book makes an important contribution by documenting the struggle going on in the American Left over education policy. Brill interviewed a long list of key players for this book, and his sympathies clearly lie with reform-minded Democrats. Very bold reforms led by Republicans after 2010 don’t receive the attention they deserve.
These however are quibbles. Brill provides a blow-by-blow of the struggle for power within the Democratic Party over K-12 policy between reformers and reactionaries. Brill’s account proves especially rich in documenting Joel Klein’s tenure in New York City. New York City won’t have an independent reform-minded billionaire as mayor forever, meaning that DFER and company will have their hands full going forward.
Barack Obama and Arne Duncan come across quite well in the book, so long as you are willing to mentally air-brush the shameful Washington Opportunity Scholarship episode out of your memory. The teacher unions went all-in for Hillary Clinton in 2008. President Obama came to office without owing the unions much, and he made use of this flexibility. If President Obama fails to win reelection, it seems clear that his “Nixon to China” leadership on teacher evaluation and support of charter schools will likely prove major elements of his legacy. This may be the case even if he wins relection in 2012.
Brill insightfully poses crucial questions towards the end regarding the maximum scale of reforms based upon the limited pool of idealistic Ivy leaguers going through the TFA pipeline. We are going to need new school models to overcome these challenges. We need to increase the opportunity for students to learn from our most effective instructors. We need to increase the attractiveness of the teaching profession to ambitious college students, and as Brill notes, we need to do this without burning our high achievers and making the average teacher more effective as well.
Some of Brill’s sources make reference to Randi Weingarten as a possible F.W. de Clerk figure. This is a bit rich after Brill documents a number demostrably false , hollow and deliberately deceitful Weingarten statements. Brill identifies Weingarten as his main source and expresses a grudging admiration for her, but I’m at a loss as to why. I hope she’ll prove me wrong, but it seems plausible to me that the “Randi as a secret reformer” story is simply a myth that serves emotional needs for both Democrats and the AFT.
Deeds, not words.
Class Warfare is too rich to attempt to summarize- read it for yourself and see what you think. I found it well worth the time.