Book review: Brill offers beach reading for the ed reform set

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Steven Brill's new tome Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools hits the shelves just as millions of schoolchildren head back to the classroom. Throughout much of the book, Brill's account of American public education's woes casts an ominous shadow over the new school year even as he concludes that the good guys just might prevail.

For anyone who doesn't recognize the name, Brill is the lawyer-turned-reporter who rocked New York City last year with his exposé of the city's "rubber rooms" housing teachers vegetating at full pay until their personnel cases were adjudicated. As with that New Yorker article, Class Warfare contains a number of jaw-dropping anecdotes that make it a page-turner, and not just for policy wonks. Here's one: Brill tells of the federal official who publicly rebuked him for questioning seniority policies in the presence of Randi Weingarten but thanked him for his persistence in private. Brill sheds new light on oft-told tales, including the Charlottesville education summit that first mobilized governors on the ed reform front, Joel Klein's appointment in the Big Apple and the Race to the Top competition.

Class Warfare is true to its name, and will provide no comfort to those weary of the bickering that dominates public policy today. On one side are the reformers (a sympathetic group of tough-minded district leaders, devoted charter school teachers and Ivy League hedge-fund managers) and on the other, the usual anti-reform suspects of union leaders and the politicians whose allegiance they compel. Brill's rhetoric contributes to the sense that they are at war with one another, as when, for example, in his description of the passage of Colorado's landmark teacher evaluation bill, he writes that "Colorado fell."

But for those of us who do feel ourselves to be in the trenches because of our work in ed reform, Class Warfare is red meat. Brill tells us what we already know and praises our progress, all the while conveying a wealth of information in a way that is accessible to the general (and voting) public. To his credit, he is not doctrinaire. After spending much of Class Warfare lambasting teachers' unions, Brill concludes that the most successful charter networks are not scalable without union help. He also suggests raising teachers' salaries and finding new ways to distinguish master educators, a recommendation with which we heartily agree. Other Brill solutions include investing in distance education, raising class sizes and eliminating failed personnel policies that favor seniority or credentials over talent. However, Brill is silent on how unions can evolve from opposing "no excuses" charter networks to jumping on their bandwagon—other than making the quixotic recommendation that Randi Weingarten be appointed NYC school chancellor. And in general, the book's breathless, gossipy tone may make credible recommendations seems less so.

Think of this book as beach reading for the education reform set. Class Warfare's collection of fast-paced vignettes makes it a fairly quick read, but if your beach vacation is over and you want to get right to Brill's policy solutions, check out his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.