Sep 12, 2011

Steve Brill Discusses His New Book With StudentsFirst [Because Nobody Else Cares About Brill's Book]

Steven Brill is the author of "Class Warfare," a critical examination of the state of education reform today. Brill has written feature articles for The New Yorker, where he wrote about the practice of housing teachers in "Rubber Rooms," The New York Times Magazine, and TIME, and has been a columnist for Newsweek and Esquire. He teaches journalism at Yale and founded the Yale Journalism Initiative, which recruits and trains journalists. Brill founded and ran The American Lawyer magazine, Court TV, and Brill's Content magazine. He is the author of "After: How America Confronted The September 12 Era," and "The Teamsters." Brill is the CEO of Press+, which has created a new business model for journalism to flourish online. He is married with three children and lives in New York. The website for his new book is at:"Class Warfare".

Why did you decide to write this book, "Class Warfare?"

I stumbled into the issue of education reform when I wrote a story about the so-called "Rubber Rooms" in New York, where teachers who had been accused of gross incompetence or worse earned full salaries to sit in rooms and literally do nothing while their cases took years to be decided. As I learned more about the system, I was blown away by the story of this massive workplace - America's public schoolrooms - where, unlike pretty much any other workplace in the world, there was no accounting for performance.

Along the way, I learned that there was a battle going on about these issues and how we reform our schools. And I realized that nobody outside the education community really understood this battle, or even realized that it was happening. This issue, education, is crucial to our national security, economic vitality, and future as a country. I think people everywhere should know and care about this story, and I wanted to introduce it to them.

Have you been surprised by the reaction to this book?

I've been surprised both happily and unhappily. I've been happily surprised by the mail I've gotten from parents and teachers who have thanked me for trying to explain to civilians what this is all about.

I've been disappointed by how many book reviews I've read which start with something like "I have not read this book and I don't intend to, but here's what I have heard it says." It's disappointing that people are criticizing the book without having read it.

Some critics have said that since you’re not a teacher, you can't comment on education policy. What's your take on that?

That's absurd. That's like saying only lawyers should shape the laws. Why shouldn't parents, citizens and elected officials also have a voice in such a critical issue that impacts all of us? Every American has a stake in the performance of our education system. We shouldn't be limiting the debate just to the voices that have steered the system to where it is today.

Are you 'anti-teacher,' as some critics of the book have suggested?

Some people turn any commentary about the union into an attack on teachers. In my experience, that's not the case at all. One of the things that I've learned is that there is a big difference between certain union leaders, and most teachers. You see this in the low turnout rate in elections for union leadership.

This book is a testament to great teachers and their role in shaping our future. Unfortunately, high-performing teachers are burning out because these contracts are bad for them. They end up having to work in this terrible system, under these onerous contract rules, and it's exhausting.

What do you think is the element of your story that people who haven't read the book would find most surprising?

I think people will be surprised to learn about all of the politics that surrounds how we educate our kids, and how those political interests so often actually hinder our ability to provide a great education. There are a lot of stories about this in the book, highlighting both the successes that some reformers have had, and the challenges they face. This is a report from the front lines.

Whether it was how the issues surrounding Michael Bloomberg's mayoral campaigns limited Joel Klein's ability to negotiate with the teacher union in New York, or how the reforms implemented in Washington D.C. came back to impact Adrian Fenty's re-election campaign, the degree to which these issues are dragged into todays political battles is pretty astounding. And it has a really direct impact on, say, whether people can open new charter schools and get the charter school limit raised in New York, or extend the school day, or cut central administration spending so that we can spend more on classrooms.

Some have said that the last chapter of your book has a different message than the rest of it. Did you change your mind along the way because one of your teacher heroines resigned due to burnout?

No. I started writing my first chapter well after I'd gathered all of my evidence, and long after I knew that Jessica Reid would be resigning from Harlem Success academy. I wrote the book in the way that I did so that readers would be able to learn all of the personalities and history involved and learn as I did while doing the reporting. Good journalists take readers on a journey. The issue that I saw on my journey is that you have to overhaul the whole system to encourage and support great teachers. The ambitious and talented people whom we need as teachers also need to have a career track so they can thrive - through promotions and other forms of recognition when they are successful, and we need to be able to scale that up to provide more and more kids a great education. And that obviously involves having teachers and their unions in that discussion, which is where my book ends[.]

How should people react to this book?

This is not just about dry policy issues and acronyms. This is a book written for "civilians." I hope that people already deeply involved in this issue will get their friends and relatives to read this book so that more people will understand what's being talked about regarding education reform, because it's such an important debate that it shouldn't be left just to those in the education community. This is the national security issue, economic security issue and civil rights issue of our time.

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