Mike Kueber's Blog

October 1, 2011

Sunday Book Review #48 – Class Warfare by Steven Brill

No, this book is not about the war that President Obama is waging against Americans who are financially successful.   Rather, it is about the war being waged against America’s dysfunctional public-school system.

I first blogged about problems with America’s public-school system back in April of 2010 when I reviewed Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American  School System.   Ravitch was an acknowledged education guru, and she provided a summary of attempts to reform American public education from Reagan’s landmark report A Nation at Risk to Obama’s Race to the Top program.

In the end, Ravitch concluded that the reform in which she had been engaged for decades was misguided:

  • The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed, and controlled…. Our schools will not improve if we entrust them to the magical powers of the market…. Our schools cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools…. If there is one thing all educators know, and that many studies have confirmed for decades, it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement…. But the market, with its great strengths, is not the appropriate mechanism to supply services that should be distributed equally to people….”

In Class Warfare, Steven Brill comes to a different conclusion.  His story begins in 1953, when Albert Shanker began his life-long effort to improve the pay and working  conditions for teachers.  At the time, they were underpaid and overworked.  Over the years, Shanker achieved great things for teachers through his union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  Not only was the pay of teachers greatly increased, but they were also protected by Collective Bargaining Agreements that would make an auto worker envious.

Shanker was eventually replaced by Randi Weingarten and the AFT was joined by another national teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA).  Together these unions, according to author Brill, prevent the American public-school system from reacting to clear signs that the system is failing the kids.  (I think an analogy would be America’s auto workers and the UAW.)

From Brill’s perspective, real education reform didn’t start with Reagan’s A Nation at Risk in 1983, but rather with Wendy Kopp’s college thesis in 1989.  Kopp’s thesis served as a business plan for starting Teach for America (TFA).  According to Wikipedia:

  • TFA is an American non-profit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders to teach for  two or more years in low-income communities throughout the United States. The organization aspires for these “corps members” to gain the insight  and added commitment to tackle the root causes of America’s achievement gap throughout their lives.”

TFA has been successful beyond Kopp’s dreams, and Brill shows how TFA alumni have played key roles in all aspects of education reform.

What is the education reform?  According to Brill, there are two important components to that reform:

  • Testing.  Measure teacher effectiveness, primarily through testing of students.  Ineffective teachers need to improve or be terminated.  Effective teachers need to be paid more and copied.  And the granting tenure needs to be tied to effectiveness.
  • Charter schools.  Parent choice with more charter schools is invaluable in improving schools.

Resisting these reforms at every turn have been the national teachers’ unions – the AFT and NEA.  Brill argues persuasively that the unions have been concerned about the teachers, not the kids.  He also devotes a few pages to minimalize author Ravitch as a compromised flack for the unions.

Class Warfare is formatted chronologically like a journal to show important battles, with the reformers trying to implement changes and the unions standing in the way.  Although the war is not over, Brill believes that President Obama has been critical for the success of education reform.  President Bush got the process going with No Child Left Behind, but he never had the political clout to get his reforms past the teachers’ union.  By contrast, President Obama was able to prevail with his Race to the Top in a way that Brill compares to “Nixon going to China.”  Fascinating analogy.

There is still a long ways to go, but Race to the Top appears to have jump-started a majority of the states to move toward testing and charter schools.  I am hopeful that the reforms will continue even if the Republicans take over in 2012.  In the latest presidential debate, Rick Perry criticized Mitt Romney, on the basis of federalism, for supporting some of the Race to the Top reforms, but I am confident that Romney will be able to hold his ground.  Although the federal government shouldn’t be dictating to the states, it should be helping.

1 Comment »

  1. […] than a year later, I reviewed another book – “Class Warfare” by Steven Brill – that took Ravitch to task for her […]

    Pingback by Sunday Book Review #121 – Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch | Mike Kueber's Blog — January 27, 2014 @ 4:37 am | Reply

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