“Class Warfare,” veteran journalist Steven Brill’s intensive look at the recent history of U.S. school reform, opens in the Oval Office on Jan. 29, 2009. President Obama, Rahm Emanuel and several other members of the Obama inner circle listened as a man named John Schnur described his Race to the Top program for education reform. Schnur, whom Brill describes as “deferential and soft-spoken, even when he is the person in the room who knows the most,” came with a three-page summary of his proposal. By the end of the meeting, the president, with some prodding from Emanuel, agreed to invest $15 billion in Schnur’s plan, which eventually became the signature piece of Obama’s education reform. In essence, Schnur’s Race to the Top invited states to compete in creating school improvement plans which had to include encouragement of charter schools and the creation of detailed strategies for using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The 10 to 15 states that came up with the best plans would get pieces of the $15 billion.
This opening scene points to one of the most compelling qualities of Brill’s writing: his knack for giving flesh and blood to background players like Schnur, who, though anything but a household name, has played perhaps the key role in formulating the Obama administration’s education reform. Indeed, sections of “Class Warfare” come across as well-crafted short stories as opposed to the dry theory being pumped out by schools of education and think tanks.
Brill’s access to key players — the famous and the not-so-famous — allows him to give readers privileged glimpses into various meetings that were seldom reported on but had great impact on the thrust of reform. We are brought to a 2004 meeting at the Manhattan apartment of billionaire George Soros, where then-Sen. Barack Obama wows a group of young hedge fund managers who have decided to invest millions in fixing public schools. We are admitted to Bill Gates’s suite in the Pierre Hotel, where Harvard professor Thomas Kane and policy wonk Robert Gordon convince Gates that effective teachers can overcome the disadvantages that poor children tend to bring to school. Out of this meeting arises Gates’s interest in funding projects to measure exactly what makes an effective teacher.
It is fascinating to see how Brill reveals the massive impact that coincidence and simple personal connections have had on the reform movement. According to Brill, Klein came to be chancellor of New York City schools because a reporter friend of Mayor Bloomberg suggested him; as chancellor, Klein got to know Michelle Rhee, whose New Teacher Project had put some 1,300 teachers into the city’s public schools; after Washington, D.C.’s new mayor, Adrian Fenty, told Klein about his plans for reforming the District’s public schools, Klein suggested that he hire Rhee as D.C. school chancellor. When Klein broached the topic to Rhee, she was at first reluctant, telling him she was not the right person for the job because she would “piss everyone off.” But after meeting with Fenty at Klein’s request, Rhee decided to take the job. Brill reports that in convincing Rhee to do so, “Fenty put on a full court press, promising repeatedly that if she took the job he would back her all the way. She wouldn’t have to worry about politics” — words full of irony given that Fenty’s choice of the politically tone-deaf Rhee played a major role in his failure to win a second term.
As much as there is to admire about Brill’s reporting and craftsmanship, “Class Warfare” tells only part of the story. Like many of the reformers he admires, Brill operates under the misconception that the U.S. education system is thoroughly rotten and that lousy teachers are the principal contributors to its decay. “American public education [is] broken,” Brill writes, and has “collapsed to a point where it [is] an obstacle to the American dream rather than an enabler.” But many of my students would beg to differ — notable among them the immigrants I have taught who entered the Alexandria public school system from Sudan, Afghanistan, Korea and El Salvador speaking little or no English and who went on to places like the University of Virginia, Harvard and William and Mary. Condemning all public schools because of the problems facing many inner-city schools has been a typical stance of those pushing a reform agenda. When results from the Program for International Student Assessment showed that U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 17th among the 65 countries participating in the literacy test, reformers were calling it a “a Sputnik moment,” as if the country were on the road to collapse. Little mention was made of the fact that when the results were broken down by ethnicity, Asian American students came in second in the world and white American students came in sixth. Unfortunately, the very low scores earned by Latinos (41st) and African Americans (46th) dragged the U.S. average down.
Brill also subscribes to the Rhee-Obama-Gates theory of reform that if schools just got rid of “ineffective teachers” the chasm between the academic achievement of African Americans and Latinos and that of Asian American and whites would disappear. Teachers would love to have the power to lift children born to 16-year-old, semi-literate girls mired in intergenerational poverty to the same academic level as that of children born into stable homes of parents who prize education. But both test results and common sense show that, with few exceptions, things don’t work that way. I can’t help noting that Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Rhee, Gates, Brill and many of the other reformers who think teachers do have that power are products of private high schools where they were sequestered from the profound problems so many of the urban poor bring into schools.
It’s a fact that there are lousy teachers — and lousy administrators — who should have been fired long ago. I applauded Rhee’s firing of some 4 percent of D.C. teachers last year, but felt she probably did not go far enough. But even had she gotten rid of 20 percent, the gap between Washington’s middle-class children and those mired in poverty and family dysfunction would still persist.
As an inside account of the Obama administration’s moves to fix schools, “Class Warfare” is superb. But reader beware. Brill is too often a fawning cheerleader for the Obama team and especially for charter schools. Much of his account has a naivete that suggests he hasn’t spent much time observing teachers — especially good teachers — in action. Brill rhapsodizes over the teaching of Jessica Reid, whom he describes as “a blond twenty-eight year old . . . wearing an outfit more likely to be seen at a downtown club” than at her Harlem charter school. The fact is that every pedagogical move that Reid made — putting up charts with rules of grammar, idioms and “juicy” synonyms for common words — will be made as a matter of course by thousands of public school teachers all over America in the coming weeks.
If you have time to read only one book about the latest trends in school reform, Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” should be your pick. Ravitch’s analysis provides more history, more depth and more honesty about the role of teachers and the impact that society and family have on what really goes on in our schools.
Inside the Fight to Fix
By Steven Brill
Simon & Schuster. 478 pp. $28