I like writing about classrooms. I think state and national education politics, by comparison, are irrelevant and trivial. Steven Brill, in his new book “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools,” wants to prove me wrong. He may have done so.
The book is about the U.S. Education Department and school superintendents and teacher union leaders in New York, Denver, Florida, New Orleans and the District wallowing in regulations and legislation and memoranda of understanding. What a bore, I thought. I put it in the bathroom, my spot for stuff my job forces me to read. Within the first few pages, I was taking the book everywhere — the supermarket checkout line, the dinner table, the movies.
It is funny, exciting, surprising and deep. Brill is a remarkable person, a reporter who became a mogul, creating American Lawyer magazine, Court TV, Brill’s Content magazine and Press+, a new business model for journalism online. But he still likes reporting.
Even his footnotes should not be missed. Brill said the American Federation of Teachers praised a union-designed teacher evaluation program in Toledo that looked better than it was because the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a backer of the project, was not checking the data. Harvard said the union’s system in Toledo cleaned out ineffective teachers regularly, until an independent review found only one dismissal in two years. Brill said self-reporting by the union and the school system “had included, among other inaccuracies, the counting of substitute teachers who had quit or had no longer been offered assignments as ‘dismissals of tenured teachers.’ ”
Brill’s footnote said: “Asked why she had not disclosed initially that the numbers were based on self-reporting rather than an examination of the actual records,” the Harvard professor in charge “told me she thought that ‘would have been obvious, but I do remember asking one of my assistants to add that disclosure, which I guess never happened.’ Asked to name the assistant, she hung up.” (Toledo union officials told me their reports were correct because, in Ohio, long-term subs must be extended the rights of regular contract teachers.)
The book has much about Washington. Brill described an obscure New York City teacher’s contract arbitration hearing on June 25, 2005, that led to Michelle A. Rhee becoming the head of D.C. schools. Rhee testified on hiring data that made the AFT local look bad. When the D.C. mayor and his advisers wanted a union-fighting chancellor in the District, they refused to listen when Rhee tried to turn the job down.
Brill is most recently famous for his New Yorker piece exposing the New York City “Rubber Room,” a place where teachers the city was trying to fire were paid full salaries to do nothing. He takes the side of those suspicious of teacher unions, supportive of public school charters and wanting to use student tests to assess teachers. People on the other side should still read the book because he exposes weaknesses in his camp, too.
The story of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grants is full of examples. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, for political reasons, agreed to appear with the head of the New York City teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, before a Race to the Top review panel and pretend that the two of them, in truth sworn enemies, were cooperating for the good of the city. That was not as bad for the chancellor as the day when, despite his hopeful expectations to the contrary, the deeply flawed, union-hamstrung New York grant application was declared one of the winners.
It is hard to forget Brill’s stories, fortunately. No matter what our politics, we Washington readers can at least get from this book a healthy skepticism about any federal or state attempts, past, present or future, to take our schools to a new level with all stakeholders happily on board.