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‘Class Warfare’ Ignites Class Debate

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 - 06:14 PM

Steven BrillYana Paskova for The New York Times
Steven Brill

On Monday, Michael Winerip, education columnist for The New York Times, weighed in on what has become the back-to-school book of the year: “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools," a 400-plus page tome by Steven Brill, the founder of Court TV and the American Lawyer site. Mr. Winerip said Mr. Brill "has little positive to say about teachers," adding that the villains of his story "are bad teachers coddled by unions." (Mr. Brill posted a comment on nytimes.com expressing surprise at the "anger" in the column, and saying it distorted his work; Mr. Winerip responded: Read their debate and other comments here.)

Mr. Winerip is just the latest to weigh in.

A week before, in The Times's Sunday Book Review, Sara Mosle took apart Mr. Brill’s analysis. “His case is not airtight, and reasonable doubts remain about his subjects’ prescriptions for reform,’’ she wrote.

Last week, Mr. Brill presented his own case to Leonard Lopate on WNYC.

It's fair to say that most of the major reviews of Mr. Brill's book have found fault with it. But in The Wall Street Journal, Joel I. Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor -- who comes off pretty well in Mr. Brill’s book -- offered a more favorable take, writing that “the reformers need to enlist the support of a new generation of educators, as Mr. Brill argues, by persuading them that teaching is less a trade-union job than a true profession, deserving better compensation and greater status but also delivering a higher level of classroom competence.’’

Alex Kotlowitz, the award-winning journalist who has written extensively on urban poverty, gently said Mr. Brill missed the point about public education's biggest challenges. "I greatly admire Steve Brill and his writing, and so was surprised to read what felt like a jeremiad against the teachers’ unions.''

Others, like Deborah W. Meier, known as the founder of the small school movement in New York, and John Merrow, an education correspondent for PBS, have also joined the debate.

Diane Ravitch, the education historian who is criticized in Mr. Brill’s book, interviewed him on C-Span’s "After Words." Included was this exchange:

DR: Do you think the public schools would be better if there were no unions?

SB: No. Not at all. I think the public schools would be a lot better if the unions took a different position about protecting the adults instead of protecting the children. But as I outlined in the book as you well know, ultimately the way really to fix public education in America is to get the unions on the side of reform, which is gradually starting to happen.

DR: Have you noticed that the states with the lowest test scores on the national exams are the right-to-work states where the unions are the weakest?

SB: That’s one of your classic pieces of cherry-picking information.

DR: It’s not cherry picking. This is in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. I was a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress board for seven years. The highest performing states are Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. These are three strong union states. The lowest performing states are those where the unions are weakest.

SB: Well, the unions aren’t weak in those low-performing states. To say that schools are high performing -- which states did you just mention?

DR: Massachusetts...

SB: Yeah, what’s next?

DR: Connecticut, New Jersey. Those three are the highest states.

SB: Is there anyone on the planet who thinks the New Jersey public school system is a successful school system?

DR: Actually, the low-performing schools are concentrated where there’s high poverty, high racial isolation, but New Jersey as a whole, again, you have to look at the national data and the national data is that New Jersey as a whole is a high-performing state as compared to the South and many other states in the Midwest and the West.

SB: Again, if you look at concentrations of high poverty, the formula you just described would change.

That exchange was one of their calmer ones. The sparks flew when they talked about teacher turnover in charter schools, about who pays Dr. Ravitch’s speaking fees and about how to measure what makes a good teacher.

When Dr. Ravitch talked about the high rate of poverty in the country over all, Mr. Brill said, “That’s why you need the best teachers and you need the best school leaders.’’

Dr. Ravitch said, “You’re not going to get them by attacking them and demonizing them.’’

“No one’s demonizing the teachers,’’ he said. “Who’s demonizing the teachers?

“Oh, please,’’ Dr. Ravitch said.

It is that point about whether good teaching can overcome the effects of poverty that seems to have sparked the most criticism of Mr. Brill’s book.

Writes Dana Goldstein in The Nation:

There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality — about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.

Here are some other reviews. There is Richard Rothstein at Slate, Nick Summers in The Daily Beast, and Jay Mathews in The Washington Post.

There has been so much chatter about the book that Larry Ferlazzo, a Sacramento teacher who writes a well-read blog for teachers, put together a list of the "best of'' Class Warfare reviews.

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