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Steven Brill brings 'Class Warfare' to school

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As teachers across the nation are returning to their classrooms, Steven Brill is drawing a lot of attention -- and a lot of flak -- for the provocative portraits of educators and U.S. education in his new book "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools." You may have even heard  him on CNN, CSPAN, NPR and plenty of other media outlets in the last two weeks, talking about his book's prescription for alleviating the system's problems. 

The founder of CourtTV and The American Lawyer magazine (among other things), Brill asks why, in chronicling the efforts of administrators, educators and reformers across the nation, has the U.S. education system turned into an "obstacle to the American dream rather than the enabler"?

Among the answers his book offers is this: There are plenty of exceptional teachers, but plenty more who fall well below the mark and are protected by "the most lavishly funded and entrenched bureaucracies in America (fourteen thousand school districts) supported by an interest group -- the teachers' unions -- [with]...money and playbooks every bit as effective in thwarting public interest as Big Oil, the NRA or Big Tobacco."  

It's enough to make you nervous as you meet your child's teacher on the first day -- is my child getting one of the good ones? -- but Brill's approach is bound to make readers anxious for a different reason. The problem with any book that indicts an entire system, whether you're talking about education or human rights or cancer research, is that it's bound to overlook many bright spots and individual success stories that are out there.

Fortunately, Brill does highlight many positive examples, even though the negative ones might make a deeper impression on readers: like the mother, for instance, who told a teacher to go easy on her daughter's homework because she had trouble writing (isn't that the point of homework?). Or there's the administrative assistant who told New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein to ignore his phone's blinking light because it was "just some parent on hold who called complaining about something. If you let it blink long enough, she'll go away."

A book like Brill's offers blame enough for every POV -- parents, administrators, unions, teachers themselves, society at large -- even though it doesn't strive for the kind of reportorial objectivity you find, say, in many books about the 2008 global financial meltdown. In those books the authors usually let the facts identify the villains; but in "Class Warfare," Brill doesn't hesitate to stake out his own position, arguing that teacher unions have to do a better job of lighting a fire under everyone, including the minimally competent teachers who'll never reach the levels of some of the teacher superstars described in "Class Warfare."

Simon & Schuster timed the book's mid-August release, obviously, for the new school year, but I'm more interested in another bit of timing: Maybe Brill's book might help one of those GOP presidential contenders flesh out an education position and start a productive national conversation?

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-- Nick Owchar

Photo: Apple as part of student lunches, 2004. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times

 
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