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
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

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?

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.