Class Warfare: An Insider's Take on Brill's New Book

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I am one of 208 people Steven Brill interviewed for his education-reform chronicle Class Warfare. In addition to having an index and notes at the back of the book detailing who told him which details for each chapter, the lawyer turned journalist includes a section on sources, listing us in alphabetical order, followed by a separate page with job descriptions of 56 people he interviewed who requested not to be named. I mention these details to give you an idea of a) how methodical Brill is as a reporter and b) how dishy his book gets with all those unnamed interviewees. The source list in Class Warfare may read like the Who's Who of modern education reform, but the chapters that precede it often feel more like The Real Housewives of Policy Wonk County.

With fresh color and a compelling storyline, Brill has managed to produce the seemingly impossible: an exciting book about education policy. But as always, the devil is in the details, and as encyclopedic as its source list is, Class Warfare offers only a narrow look at the diverse set of ideas and players working under the reform banner. The book ends up portraying a profound and complicated effort at social change as something more akin to a soap opera. That's understandable — Brill needed a narrative to wrap the book around. But his approach ultimately diminishes what the reform movement has accomplished over the past two decades by essentially presenting it as the pet projects of a highly networked clique leveraging their connections and savvy.

Although Brill is relatively new to education, he was an obvious pick for the list of "11 Education Activists to Watch in 2011" that I put together in January for this column. After Brill's devastating 2009 article in The New Yorker about New York City's "rubber rooms" — purgatory with paychecks, in which teachers would get their full salary while spending months or even years twiddling their thumbs in otherwise empty rooms awaiting hearings about alleged misconduct — his broader, book-length account of the modern reform movement promised to excite and enrage partisans on all sides of the education debate.

But while Brill's rubber-room article exposed a lot of people to the grim reality of educational governance and politics and made it hard for unions to explicitly or even tacitly defend such job protections, Class Warfare is unlikely to have that kind of sway. Despite all the new details, the basic storyline is an old one — reformers against the status quo. Not surprisingly, most of the reviews of Class Warfare and the heated conversation about it use the book as a proxy to argue all too familiar viewpoints about improving schools.

That's too bad because there is a lot to learn from Class Warfare. Some of the book's best, albeit most depressing, material comes from Brill's focus on what happens when the press conferences are over, after the initial rush of praise for new reform initiatives dies down. Case in point: The American Federation of Teachers was lauded by pundits for retaining star attorney Kenneth Feinberg to revamp tenure rules for teachers, but Brill talks with Feinberg and reveals that his actual mandate was much more modest and unlikely to have large-scale impact.

When I asked Brill how he uncovered so much texture that full-time education reporters had missed, he responded by citing an example: "I read every [New York City] teachers' contract since 1962. That's my idea of a fun weekend." Given that the education world is populated by a lot of people opining about schools they've never visited, tests they've never seen, and laws they've never read, Brill's diligence is refreshing. He also clearly has a Woodwardian knack for getting people to tell him things they probably shouldn't. It's pretty obvious that some of the players wanted to get their role on record and to dish with a writer of Brill's caliber. He's able to exploit that, and Class Warfare has its share of deliberately or inadvertently embarrassing details. (How does that old jingle go? Brill ream — a little jab'll do ya!)

Brill includes plenty of unflattering information about the reform movement and doesn't go as easy on today's reformers as many reviews of the book claim, but it's still obvious where his sympathies lie. Until the end, however, he doesn't really wrestle with the question of whether or how today's reformers might be overreaching. You don't have to be sympathetic to the current system or to those defending it from radical change to appreciate that not every reform idea or strategy is a great one.And that's the conversation now quietly unfolding behind the scenes among reform leaders.

Some people cited in the book have come forward to challenge certain details — although their protests are mostly unconvincing, in my view — while others are hoping no one notices. Notably, reform leaders including Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp are not big fans of the book. The mixed reaction shows that despite the common perception (and, to a large extent, Brill's presentation), the reform movement is anything but monolithic. In fact, because of its messiness and internal disagreements, the loose confederation of education reformers is a far more interesting story. Around the country, there are an increasing number of teachers, school leaders, activists, and policy types betting their careers on the idea that American public schools can be much more of an engine of equal opportunity than they are today.

I've been in education reform for a while now — I worked in the Clinton White House on education issues, was a state board of education member in Virginia, have launched successful ventures in the non-profit sector, and more recently have advised states about how to succeed under the Obama Administration's Race to the Top initiative. So I have a good sense of just how much today's reformers owe to people who took real risks to help create the national conversation we're having today. People like Don Shalvey, who walked away from a safe and successful career as a public school superintendent to launch a network of charter schools; Howard Fuller, whose tireless quest to empower low-income parents led him far from traditional political allegiances; and Democratic activists Al From and Will Marshall (my former boss), who were taking on the teachers' unions long before it was popular to do so. Other than a footnote about Fuller, you won't find these people — or many others, both well known and more obscure, who also deserve mention — in Brill's account.

Over the years, I've become at once more cautious about various reform ideas but also more radicalized as the catastrophe that our approach to public education visits on poor and minority students becomes more and more clear to me. Brill gets this urgency — and we need more of that understanding, especially among the comfortable — but as often happens in education coverage, Class Warfare is more ambulance chaser than game changer.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.