Steven Brill and the berated dog

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.

The cover of Steven Brill's new book.

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.

18 thoughts on “Steven Brill and the berated dog

  1. “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.”

    Brill himself maintains that he said something that is nearly opposite, namely, that Ravitch started getting speaking fees after changing her views for independent reasons (and that Ravitch ought to disclose such fees). He doesn’t think that he accused her of changing her mind for that motive at all.

    Perhaps you ought to read that passage again and see whether your interpretation is remotely plausible.


      • So Brill really says that Ravitch was sitting there happy as a conservative, but then thought to herself, “Gee, I could make bigger speaking fees if I switched sides,” and then proceeded to switch sides just for money? I don’t believe that he said that at all. You’re wrong to suggest as much.


  2. This sounds like one big, long, wank. Schools aren’t going to get better until we give teachers the tools, support, and resources to teach better. And this book sounds like it mostly does the opposite, while hoping to placate deeper thinkers with a few footnotes.

    As a teacher I have to say that the “rubber room” sounds like the closest approximation to purgatory that humans can come up with. The problem isn’t that we’re paying teachers to take naps, it’s that we’re putting teachers in rooms with nothing to do, and holding the ones who really would be better off doing something else in an endless bureaucratic nightmare.

    Real teachers, with a real understanding of the complexities of schools and of teaching, are too busy doing their jobs to have time to write a book like this.


  3. Back atcha, Steven Brill — I’m curious about why someone with not the slightest previous interest in education suddenly embraced it as a supposed deeply felt cause.

    Given that the so-called education reformers — the promoters of privatization and attackers of teachers and public schools — are pouring millions upon millions into spreading their message through so-called “think tanks” (really advocacy orgs), astroturf fake parent and teacher orgs, and so forth — we don’t have the teensiest little suspicion that a nice amount of that bounty is flowing Brill’s way?

    And no, don’t anybody come back with crap about what teachers’ unions spend on lobbying, because that is simply not analogous. They are not setting up vast numbers fake organizations or coopting real ones — from Students First to Education Next to Stand for Children to Educators 4 Excellence to Parent Revolution and I could keep going for a long, long time just listing more and more from the ed-“reform” side — to spread their message.

    By the way, I don’t know what the inside of those rubber rooms looked like and I don’t give much credence to anything Brill says, but if it’s true that there are teachers in disciplinary purgatory with their heads on the table, it sounds to me like a likely sign of clinical depression. Let’s kick them some more.


  4. I appreciate the review overall, but I do get a bit tired of the cliché about “putting adult interests ahead of children’s interests”. Now, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it seems like a convenient and intellectually lazy way of labeling a disagreement about working conditions. John, it would, after all, be in the best interests of an informed citizenry if you and your colleagues who benefit from public broadcasting funding would work longer hours and produce more stories for the same pay. I also have a list of other services you should provide, but I don’t necessarily aim to pay you for them. You could negotiate, you could even refuse, but then you’d be putting your own selfish interests ahead of the good of the nation.

    So, if we’re going to criticize contracts, let’s have it out; specify the provisions and the problems (and thank you once again for mentioning that contracts are not solely union creations).

    But it’s unfair to suggest that teachers’ professional interests are fundamentally in opposition to children’s interests. Or, if you go that route, then anyone who profits by serving others must be held to the same standard as a self-interested group seeking to maximize their own income at the expense of those they serve.


    • I have never said, here or anywhere, that teachers put their interests ahead of those of children. That said, there’s ample evidence that both school boards and teacher unions often put adult interests first. On one level, they are obeying fundamental organizational ‘law,’ that, once established, an organization inevitably puts its survival ahead of whatever its original purpose for existing was (whether it was to make widgets or save the whales).

      Those charged with the nurturing of children ought to be able to rise above that to an appreciable degree. Do school boards? Do unions? I don’t see that happening very often. I would refer you to some of Al Shanker’s writings on this, his urging his constituency to look beyond self interest. Or read Bob Chanin’s farewell speech to the NEA Convention cited in Brill’s book for the opposite position. “When all is said and done, NEA and its affiliates must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions, and what unions do first and foremost is represent their members.” Brill says the crowd, which had booed Arne Duncan, stood and cheered.


      • John, I didn’t directly say that you said what you think I said you said! Let’s not split hairs too much (especially since we’re veering off the topic of the original post). Here’s the line I was reacting to:

        “it seems to me they bear equal responsibility for our having a system that puts adult interests ahead of those of children”

        So, it’s the “system” but not the teachers, but the teachers (and admins./boards) bear responsibility for putting the pieces in place in the system??? Okay.

        My point is simply that what is in the children’s interests is not always clear cut, and that we’d be better off not painting people into corners with clichés (irony intended).

        I elaborate in my own blog post:


  5. Good post. You nailed the key point. Brill made his mind up before he knew what a value added model is, for instance. He never bother to read th research that he disaparages. He sure didn’t consult with teachers who have stuck it out in neighborhood schools. I’m also jealous of his access, and wonder what will be confirmed due to his insider’s oral history. I also welcome the backlash he provoked. Maybe we’ll now be able to say that there are no simple levers for change. And more importantly, we need to seek “all of the above” answers. Yes, that chapter at the end led to some nuance. Here’s my take on that part of Brill’s book.


  6. What’s striking to me is not Brill’s book but that everyone is talking about it. Brill doesn’t give us much new information; there’s little here that most of us who are engaged in education didn’t know already.

    And yet, this will be the hot education book for weeks to come.

    I think something similar happened with Diane Ravitch’s book. It flew off the shelves yet gave us very little that was new or striking.

    Both of these people are talented writers and I think both believe very deeply in what they write. But neither is saying much that we don’t already know.

    Yet our nation seems to have an insatiable craving for information about ed reform, information that has largely been hashed out months or even years before it ends up in someone’s book.

    If I look at our failure to reauthorize NCLB, the flat NAEP scores, and the continual choruses of “unions bad, charters good”, i feel like we’re stuck in a rut.

    Clearly, many smart people have written about education reform in the last few years. But as yet, none seems to have come up with anything truly new. Their slants may be different; their conclusions may diverge; but in the end, we’re still having the same arguments about the same things.

    Brill’s book should be a call to all of us to get beyond the arguments of the last few years. Those ideas are played out, and by now we know that the end game leads to a stalemate.

    We don’t need stalemates, we need solutions. Anybody feel like suggesting some?

    Steve Peha
    President, Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.


    • It would be wonderful if Education Nation took up that challenge, but I don’t think it will happen–in part because the lead blurb for Brill’s book is from Tom Brokaw.


    • “We don’t need stalemates, we need solutions.”

      The problem is that there aren’t any ‘solutions’ — unless of course our wealthy nation becomes willing to confront the truth about its tolerance for an extraordinarily high child poverty rate and also somehow becomes willing to care about the generational harm done to millions of families and children by having the #1 world incarceration rate (the escalation of which was started immediately following the victories of the Civil Rights movement). But the masses and our leaders prefer to keep themselves at a distance from the ugliness and unpleasantness of people who are suffering from those things, not to mention that the victims are seen as sub-human, so it isn’t likely that the hardest truths about America will ever be faced. We prefer to be hypocritical and self-deluded.

      Every single day, urban public schools are forced to cope with kids affected by poverty and our incarceration rate. It’s not that those schools or teachers are “failing” but that the people in the communities they serve have been failed by the larger society. And on a local level, parents with the greatest resources view poor and struggling families and their children as pariahs; avoiding contact with them is why so many people are attracted to private schools and, now, a whole set of charter schools that require an extra effort to get into and which require specific measures of compliance once admitted. The desire being more and more institutionalized is to leave children of a certain type behind.

      Besides, the whole education “crisis” business and the ed reform mechanisms for response have been taken right out of the disaster capitalism playbook. Privatizing as many public institutions as possible – as has been done with the military and the prison system – is really what this current education “re-form” movement has been about from day one. Attacking public schools teachers and their unions is not only a way to accomplish that goal, but it serves as a red herring to divert the public’s attention away from the real rot that’s inside.

      Two links to share:


  7. For the last decade, we’ve brought together district and charter public school educators to learn from each other, and from some of the nation’s most effective schools of each type. We find many people at the practitioner level are not much interested in the wonky battles about what’s best, or what movies like “Waiting for Superman” did or did not say.

    However, a few points. As I watched “Waiting for Superman” (twice) I heard explicit statements that not are charter public schools are excellent. I heard an explicit statement (and graphic) saying that some “magnet” district schools are excellent.


  8. You don’t have to take Brill’s word for it: here’s the video showing NEA members standing and cheering at the adults vs. children line:

    And here’s the transcript of what Bob Chanin said to the NEA convention:

    “Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.

    “This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates with closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality, and the like are unimportant or inappropriate. To the contrary, these are the goals that guide the work we do. But they need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay.”

    Nice. Helping students isn’t “unimportant or inappropriate,” and we’ll even make a goal of helping students. But helping students takes a definite back seat to the union’s real goal: protecting the adults’ interests in their jobs.


  9. John. Brilliant review. Brill lionizes many of the reform movement while surfacing the chinks in their armor. But he never digs deeply. He never recognizes that there are third- and fourth-way solutions that many teachers (and their supporters like us at CTQ) are promoting that can leverage the 21st century teaching and learning that students deserve. He seems hopelessly lost in the Klein/rhee/kopp v. Union debate of the 20th century…..and does not delve int how 21st tools and teacher leadership opportunities can transcend the diabolical divide of today. With TEACHING 2030 and our New Millennium Initiative we will get there. Keep pushing us!


  10. I used to enoy Brill’s analysis of journalism. After reading reviews of his book I wonder if he had the same tendency to get sucked into one-sided sources when he was doing that work.


  11. Should cabin pressure in an airplane drop suddenly, the oxygen masks will deploy. Adults with children are instructed to secure their oxygen masks first, before helping their children secure theirs. Isn’t that adults putting their needs before those of their children?

    Much research has established that poverty is the number one factor influencing how well students do in school. Students worried about where their next meal will come from aren’t quite so concerned about how to spell or add or fill in the silly little bubbles with a #2 pencil as someone whose every need and desire is taken care of.

    Several people here have lamented that the teachers’ unions often put “their own” interests before those of the children. It’s the same thing as the oxygen masks and poverty. If teachers aren’t confident that they will be able to support their families, they are not going to be able to put their “all” into their students. Properly taking care of the teachers enables them to properly take care of their students. Therefore, putting teachers’ interests first IS THE SAME THING AS putting the students’ interests first. You can’t worry about education (either providing it or receiving it) if your basic survival needs aren’t taken care of.

    Stop trying to frame it as a teachers’ interests vs. students’ interest thing. Protecting the teachers’ interests goes hand-in-hand with protecting the students’ interests. Unfortunately, the unions need the power to push for teacher’s interests – because society has an abysmal track record when it comes to even supporting its teachers’ basic needs.

    If you don’t have enough oxygen flowing to YOUR brain, how can you possibly help that small scared kid sitting next to you get their mask on properly?


  12. In other words, what’s good for GM is good for America. Just pay us more and don’t ask what we’re doing, and that will somehow be better for our customers because we need to be fat and happy to do our work.


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