Class Warfare—Over What?

by Guest Blogger
August 17th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

In a whopping 437 pages, Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools (Simon & Schuster, 2011) recounts a dramatic and vicious battle between two education camps: on the one side, hedge fund managers, aggressive chancellors, determined charter school leaders, teachers who work endlessly, all fighting for reform as they define it; on the other, the big unions who use their clout to block, complicate, or slow down reform. The book has good guys, bad guys, and a surprise twist. Yet it does not stop to consider what education is, what it contains, or what ends it serves. This weakness is not particular to Brill or his book; it is at the core of the battles he describes. But Brill takes part uncritically.

About a hundred pages into the book, Brill describes Anthony Lombardi, a tough-minded middle school principal in Queens, New York, who “would target the teachers he thought were laggards and make life miserable for them.” One of Lombardi’s initiatives was the implementation of a new curriculum that he had developed “with consultants from Columbia Teachers College”; at his urging, teachers uncomfortable with the new curriculum left the school. Former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein told Brill that “Lombardi had emptied his whole school of the incompetents”; Brill accepts this assertion at face value, without looking into the curriculum or the objections. At the very least, Brill could have examined the curriculum; those who resisted it may have had good reasons for doing so.

As the book continues, so does Brill’s error, his dismissal of the substance of education. When describing Children First, the initial education plan of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, Brill fails to mention the new mandated curricula: Balanced Literacy, Everyday Mathematics, and Impact Mathematics. Balanced Literacy contained more pedagogical prescriptions than subject matter: for instance, a teacher’s direct instruction was to last no longer than 10-15 minutes, and students were to spend much time in groups. Literacy coaches told teachers how to arrange their rooms, what to say in their mini-lessons, and how to praise or correct students. None of this is brought up in the book. Brill notes that Randi Weingarten (at that time the president of the United Federation of Teachers) asked for “teacher input into textbooks and class configuration, more teacher discretion in classroom instruction,” and more. Instead of taking these demands seriously, or even considering them, Brill appears to join in with Klein, who “laughed off these demands from the union.” What is so laughable about a demand that teachers be able to exercise their best judgment? If they are not allowed to use their minds, how will they teach their students to do so?

In Brill’s view, the great teachers are the ones who do what they’re told (and much more), give students their cell phone numbers, agree to work longer days without extra pay, never sit down, and raise test scores. (Later in the book, he grants that teachers should be allowed to sit down now and then.) But education is not a hundred-meter sprint. To teach anything of substance, a teacher needs time for solitary planning and preparation, time to meet informally and formally with colleagues, time to confer with students, time to think. The class needs time to contemplate and discuss interesting topics, even when they are not related to the immediate goals. Often the goals are well served by such forays, as students learn to consider the subject from different angles. Such time does not exist in abundance, but there is nothing heroic about taking it all away.

To Brill, such quiet and ruminative work is unheard of. He criticizes the New York City teachers’ union (the UFT) for “Circular 6,” a rule that reduced teachers’ scheduled non-classroom duties from two periods to one daily. The other period would still be allotted to professional duties, but teachers could choose from a list, and they did not have to be in a specific place at a specific time. To Brill, this means an “extra period off during the day, a perk”; apparently, if teachers are not given tasks at specific places and times, they will do nothing. This assumption is false; it is precisely the self-motivated teachers who need flexibility and will be driven away by an overly prescriptive schedule. Suppose, for instance, that a teacher wishes to help write the school’s curriculum in a particular subject. She will need to write on her own, consult with others, and examine resources. To do this, she cannot always be in a specified location; she should be trusted to move around as necessary to get the work done.

Many other initiatives discussed in Brill’s book—charter school co-location in public school buildings, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, the Los Angeles Times’ publication of teachers’ value-added ratings, the mass firing of teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island—evade the question of what the schools are seeking to teach. Brill visits a KIPP classroom that in his view resembles other KIPP classrooms he has seen: “full of focused, connected children with a magnetic teacher in front of her room.” But KIPP co-founder Dave Levin sees all sorts of things wrong with it: in Brill’s words, “an imperfect bulletin board, three students whose eyes were wandering, the teacher turning her back to face the blackboard, an incomplete reading log.” Brill does not question or scrutinize Levin’s criticism, but he should. There is a fine line between “sweating the small stuff” and neglecting the larger picture. Do wandering eyes necessarily mean lack of interest or involvement? How does a bulletin board affect the lesson, the course, and the overall education of the students?

Such classroom descriptions make up only a fraction of the book. Brill seems much more interested in the politics of education reform: who is aligned with whom, who knows what about whom, and so forth. Some of his favorite reformers share his predilection for power play. Brill describes a 2008 memo written by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) leaders who sought to prevent the selection of Linda Darling-Hammond as secretary of education. Their memo stated, among other things, that Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, was DFER’s second-choice recommendation after Arne Duncan. According to Brill, this was an attempt to “lure” Darling-Hammond into a negative response that would weaken her prospects (she had written critically of TFA in the past). Here are influential policymakers using memos not to put forth their views but to manipulate and hurt others. Here is corruption of language and leadership, a void rolling at full speed. Brill rolls along.

Ultimately Brill discovers an error in his own thinking. For most of the book, he glorifies the teachers, leaders, and policymakers who relentlessly pursue success (in terms of student achievement on tests). Later, he acknowledges that such people—especially those who actually work in schools—cannot be sustained, let alone duplicated. He quotes a Harlem Success Academy teacher who reports feeling “overwhelmed, underappreciated, and underpaid” and who says that “this model just cannot scale.” Recognizing that not all teachers are or can be extraordinary, Brill recommends that reformers work with unions—particularly leaders like Weingarten—to “motivate and enable the less than extraordinary in the rank and file to respond to this emergency” (that is, the emergency of failing schools).

Reasonable as Brill’s conclusion sounds, it rests on a flawed definition of “extraordinary.” Extraordinary runners are those who run the fastest or longest (or both). Extraordinary—and good—educators are those who bring subjects to their students in compelling and lasting ways. Some may look like Brill’s high-energy heroes; some may not. A sense of urgency is helpful if one knows what one is doing and takes both a long and a short view. There are quiet teachers who teach their subjects with passion, knowledge, and expertise. There are schools that resist frenzy and fads and educate their students well.

Results are important, but only in relation to what we are trying to do. We may not agree on what we are trying to do, but we should ask what it is, listen to ourselves and others, and follow our best understanding. Class Warfare does not even pose the initial question; it reads like a video game, where the goal is to win points, period.

Diana Senechal has written for American Educator, Education Week, Educational Leadership, American Educational History Journal, and numerous blogs. She holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale and taught for four years in New York City public schools. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November.


  1. My mother always told me she read book reviews such as in the NYRB, not so much for the re-telling of the book, but for the exploration and dissection of ideas. This review sums up not just what is faulty in Brill’s book, but what is faulty with much of the current ed reform regime.

    I so appreciate your vision of teaching & learning–everyone should.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — August 17, 2011 @ 10:42 am

  2. Thank you, Rachel.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 17, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  3. “Teachers must be productive, efficient, obedient, unrelentingly selfless martyrs–or off with their heads!” We’ve seen this movie. Is The Hangover II still playing? Can I exchange my ticket?

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 17, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

  4. You are being unfair to Brill. I am only halfway through the book and I have already read about6 two instances of teachers not maintaining their bulletin board correctly. Since that drives Brill’s favorite principals into a rage, doesn’t that mean that it is Brill’s duty to rant against due process protections of teachers who commit those sorts of sins?

    Also, I think Brill’s work reads less like a video game and more like a Kitty Kelly bio.

    Comment by john thompson — August 19, 2011 @ 7:51 am

  5. You got me there, John. I have no idea what a Kitty Kelly bio is, but if I were given a multiple-choice test, my instincts would have me select “a Kitty Kelly bio” over a video game. In fact, the “video game” answer would probably be the “distractor,” meant to trip up the students who didn’t know what a “Kitty Kelly bio” was. But ha!

    Steven Brill’s book Class Warfare MOST resembles:

    a. a Kitty Kelly bio
    b. The Communist Manifesto
    c. a video game
    d. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 19, 2011 @ 9:25 am

  6. Kudos John for uncovering a gap in Diana Senechal’s cultural literacy. Ms. Kelley is the notorious “unauthorized biographer” of various celebrity worthies including Frank Sinatra and Jackie O and Oprah. She traffics in scandal and innuendo of questionable credibility.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 19, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  7. Dianna, you fail to add the fifth choice, choice “e”: Any Tom Clancy novel.

    Comment by bill eccleston — August 19, 2011 @ 9:38 am

  8. Bill, I assume that the Tom Clancy novel would be another “distractor”; is that right? I was trying to be relatively not terribly unfair to the folks taking the test.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 19, 2011 @ 9:52 am

  9. No, Dianna, I mean the Tom Clancy novel as the correct answer. All his plots exploit our historical American fear of the boogeyman—who was a communist in the 80′s; an hispanic drug lord in the 90′s, and an “Islamo-facist” in the oughts. Presently, the boogeyman is beginning lessons in Mandarin. If the clever minions he’s marshaling in the graduate schools of engineering on the yonder side of the Yellow Sea continue their progress, it will once again be “game over” for America. So who’s to stop him this time? Why, a superhero exactly along the lines of Michelle Rhee! Who are the boogeyman’s stalking horses, his fifth columnists, his useful idiots? Why, the teacher’s unions—all that stands in the way of what’s educationally good and righteous.

    Brill is simply in the wrong genre. He’d be rich if he poured his imagination into the mold that it naturally seeks.

    Comment by bill eccleston — August 20, 2011 @ 9:32 am

  10. Bill,

    To write a novel like that, one would need to construct a plot and create some suspense. A strong final sentence would be key as well.

    Brill’s book ends, “That requires not eliminating the unions that represent them but keeping the pressure on the unions to help create an environment where everyone can agree that our public school teachers can sit down once in a while–as long as they are committed to running the race and to being accountable for where they are and the children entrusted to them finish.”

    Say what?

    That’s why I took the Tom Clancy option as a distractor.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 24, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  11. [...] to this blog challenge classroom orthodoxies on curriculum, assessment, and teaching practices. Her most recent post offered a critique of Steven Brill’s Class Warfare. A full collection of her blog posts is [...]

    Pingback by Kudos to Diana Senechal! « The Core Knowledge Blog — September 14, 2011 @ 10:46 am

  12. Teachers College Reading & Writing Project – probably the WORST programs EVER. Poor kids.

    Comment by Queens Teacher — September 14, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

  13. This is an excellent article. I will certainly look for other articles on school reform by Diana Senechal.

    Comment by Betty Dunn — April 13, 2012 @ 10:48 am

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