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Steven Brill And The Berated Dog

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As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

Please imagine this scenario: While walking in the park, you see someone famous ahead of you. This person is berating his dog, yelling at it, slapping it and then giving the poor whimpering dog a hard kick or two. Before you can intervene, the person drags the dog away.

I ask you, would you ever be able to read about or even think about that person -- let's say he's running for office or donating millions to charity -- without that image coming into your mind?

I think something like that happened to Steven Brill, the lawyer/writer who broke the story of New York City's infamous 'Rubber Room,' where teachers that no principal would hire were stashed -- and paid -- while awaiting arbitration. In that New Yorker article, Brill painted an unforgettable picture of hundreds of adults wasting their days (including a middle school teacher making $85,000 a year who brought in a beach lounge chair). In the piece, Brill correctly identifies the problem: a union contract that establishes procedures for dismissal that are so complex as to make firing even the most incompetent teacher impossible. It's a good guy-bad guy story, with the teachers union being Brill's villain (even though someone sat on the opposite side of the table and agreed to those provisions).

I use that word, 'unforgettable,' advisedly, because it seems that the experience colors just about every page of his new book, the very readable Class Warfare.

Brill seems to admit as much in an August 21 column distributed by Reuters:

I've now read all the white papers and commission reports. I've learned all the policy wonk acronyms, and logged hours with everyone from teacher trainees, to the secretary of education, to Weingarten and Ravitch. Yet after all of that it still seems as uncomplicated as it did when I saw my first Rubber Roomer with his head resting on a card table. I mean no disrespect to all the dedicated people who are the "experts" in education policy, but for me the problem and its root causes still seem as undebatable as the practice of paying that guy to sleep for three or four years.

That's a shame, because the story is more nuanced and ultimately more interesting, as Brill finally acknowledges in his final chapter, which is roughly 180 degrees different in tone from the rest of the book.

In the body of Class Warfare, teacher unions are the villains -- the 'education deformists' -- and a handful of (mostly) Democrats who challenge them are the heroes. He blithely labels people and organizations as anti- or pro-reform. So, for example, the Washington Post's blog, "The Answer Sheet" is identified as "an anti-education reform blog." (Brill's tunnel vision was also discussed in detail in Sara Mosle's Aug. 18 review of the book for The New York Times ).

Even worse is his treatment of the movie "Waiting for 'Superman,'" a badly-slanted film that distorts the reality of public education, praising charter schools despite their muddy record of success and ignoring successful traditional public schools. He explains away the millions of dollars the filmmakers received from large foundations, suggesting that since all that money came in after the fact, it did not influence the message and the filmmakers are not hypocrites or worse.

But he has no trouble implying that one of his villains, Diane Ravitch, is for sale. In a short chapter about Ravitch, he comes very close to saying that she changed her views to accommodate those who pay her speaking fees.

But Brill, a tough man who does see the big picture, does not seem to be able to criticize his heroes directly -- those ideas, he puts in footnotes (two in particular about Wendy Kopp, one about Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation).

His heroes are Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success Charter Schools, Jon Schnur, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and a few others in that camp. Never once does he take on school boards, although it seems to me they bear equal responsibility for our having a system that puts adult interests ahead of those of children.

It's not a book to read in one gulp, largely because of his format -- dozens and dozens of chapters that are only three or four pages in length. Each chapter ends with the transitional equivalent of "meanwhile, back at the ranch" that becomes a distraction after a while.

However, there's a lot to like about the book -- including his inside stuff about Race to the Top. I have to admit that those sections made me professionally jealous, because we had negotiated access to the Race process for our video crew with Assistant Secretary Peter Cunningham, approved by his boss, Arne Duncan, until the Department's lawyers vetoed it.

I think all wonks will enjoy Class Warfare. It might ruin the book for you, but I'd suggest reading the last chapter first.

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To change topics for one moment, our summer intern produced a video piece for us (at Learning Matters) before heading back to college (talk about initiative!). The piece, a look at a remarkable young man in the Brooklyn Youth Sports Club (in NYC), can be viewed here or below. Take the time to share it around, if you can.