Class Warfare; Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools

Steven Brill, Simon & Schuster, 2011


Reviewed by Graham Mulligan


This book is a blatant union bashing political rant masquerading as an insider look at America’s education struggles. I found it very awkwardly written with its eighty-plus ‘chapters’, which were sometimes a page and a half long. There is very little effort made by the author to present the issues objectively. Education is too important a topic to be influenced by subjective ideologically driven rants like this.


The idea of educational reform in America has a long history going back to Thoreau and Dewey and in Europe, where names like Piaget and Montessori stand out as important reformers. Reform in this sense meant innovation and improvement and even went under the name ‘progressive education’. This book is not about improvement of a system, nor is it about an innovation in method or curriculum. The sub-title is about how to ‘Fix America’s Schools’ and, of course, implies that they are broken.


The story begins with the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), a Reagan era report that raised alarm bells about the declining competitiveness of American high school graduates. Interestingly, a 1990 review of the data used in the report discovered that although overall average scores declined, the subgroups of students increased” (Scandia Report – Further reform legislation includes G.W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” act (NLCB, 2002) and Obama’s “Race to the Top” act (2009). Along the way many other events, organizations, personalities and stories are played out in Steven Brill’s re-telling of this American tale.


Teach For America (TFA) is portrayed as a central protagonist in the tale. Two-year assignments of “the best and the brightest” graduates of American universities are used as hopeful interventions in the most hopeless schools. Teacher Union power, blocking sensible reform, is cast as the antagonist in this morality tale. Brill writes vignettes of what he calls successful teachers, those TFA stars that all have names and overcome hurdles because they don’t quit on kids. He only needs to describe one or two un-named lazy slouches to counterpoint the good from bad teachers and we all get it because we’ve all had bad teachers somewhere along the line, right?


KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools are another positive thrust into the battle of education in America. The counterpoint this time is a reference to the union contract and its growing number of pages. Brill sets this up earlier by describing how teacher contracts actually came about in America because there was a need to expand the ranks of teachers to meet the education needs of large numbers of baby boomers and by 1961, under Kennedy, the right to organize was granted. Union contracts were brief and dealt only with salary issues then.


Some related material:


Infographic on the education crisis in America:





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