An Interview with Steven Brill
Controversy, inside info, and unlikely heroes fill his new book about ed reform.
Cigar-chomping, tab-drinking Steven Brill has followed up widely read articles in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine with a new book, Class Struggle, which details the long-running battles between "reformers" and union leaders in New York City and describes how the Obama administration's reform-minded Race to the Top initiative took shape and got off the ground. Brill is a longtime journalist who's written books about the Teamsters and the aftermath of 9/11. He also helped start Court TV and founded both media-insider publication Brill's Content and the well-regarded American Lawyer magazine. His new book is already proving to be controversial for reporting that reform critic Diane Ravitch took speaking fees from teachers' unions without adequate disclosure.
Q: What motivated you to turn your 2009 New Yorker and New York Times articles on charter school co-location [placing charter and district schools in the same buildings] and the so-called rubber rooms into a book?
A: I went to one of these co-location hearings and I saw this battle going on, and then eight minutes away by cab ride-I went to have dinner with friends on the Upper East Side-I'm at dinner with my wife and friends describing the events and they're looking at me like I was from Mars. And it just struck me that nobody in the media or anyone else who doesn't have to deal with public schools has any idea that there's a revolution going on.
Q: There are lots of characters in your book. Who would you describe as the hero?
A: There are lots of heroes. They range from people like charter-school teacher Jessica Reid, who no one's ever heard of, to former New York City schools superintendent Joel Klein to union president Jean Clements in Hillsborough, Florida.
Q: What are some of the book's most dramatic moments?
A: They would range from Colorado state senator Michael Johnston not being sure his bill will be reported out of committee to Jessica Reid and one of her fellow teachers when they pull off a really good class. The three-sided negotiation that Joel Klein and Randi Weingarten and Mayor Bloomberg have is pretty dramatic.
Q: What differences did you find between high-performing charters and lower-performing neighborhood schools operating in the same building?
A: What the great charter schools do is they treat every 45 or 50 minutes as this great production. How do I prepare for it? What do I do while I'm doing it? How do I evaluate it when it's over? What do I do to make it better the next time? Whereas on the other side of the building, you don't see that. You see people just getting through the period.
Q: Is the book pro-"reform," a rebuke to reformers, or a bit of both?
A: I don't care if it's perceived one way or the other. What I care about is what I think the truth is. Am I pro-reform? I'm certainly pro-accountability. Any journalist is pro-accountability. I think it is an objective fact that you can't run any kind of an enterprise without taking into account the performance of the people who are working for you. Especially if it's failing you might want to take a look at that. It's pro-accountability but it's not, "Gee, we have to test everybody every week," and that's the answer.
Q: Did your thinking change during the writing of the book? You get to the issues of scale and sustainability really late in the book.
A: I telegraph that point earlier in the book. Jessica Reid says, "I don't know how I can sustain this." At the very beginning, on page nine, I write that charter schools can't be the answer. What I'm building up to at the end is, We need to fix this system.Q How did you get so much detail on the Race to the Top scoring process and the internal debate over what to do with the results?A I interviewed everybody who was in that room. I spent a lot of time with [Arne] Duncan. A lot of time with Joanne Weiss. A lot of time with two or three staff people who were working for her. I just triangulated that to hell.
Q: Do you think Race to the Top is going to make a big difference to American education?
A: I think it already has, but not because all of the states, or necessarily even most of the states, are going to do what they promised. It unleashed this nascent movement, this sort of pent-up demand for change.
Q: What's the case for Arne Duncan deciding not to override the application readers who gave some states higher scores on Race to the Top than they probably should have received?
A: I think he was right not to override them because it would have damaged the integrity of the program. [But] they should sue Hawaii to get the money back, and the same thing with New York state.
Q: Do you think that Jonah Edelman, Michelle Rhee, and some of the other young reformers have the experience and the political savvy to really do the work that they're doing?
A: I think Jonah got a really bad rap for the talk he gave at the Aspen [Institute], which I was at. I didn't see anything in there that was a story. My only question is why he apologized. I don't think he had anything to apologize for.
Q: What about Michelle Rhee?
A: I admire her. She's very tough. She says what comes to her mind. She did a lot of what she set out to do. It's also true that the best place to take on civil servants may not be Washington, D.C.
Q: What is your objection to the use of anonymous donations to fund advocacy organizations? Why do you think it's hypocritical?
A: I think if you're talking about accountability-the whole notion of the ed reform movement is that this is such an important public issue, that public servants ought to be accountable-I just instinctively think that people who are spending money to get that message across shouldn't be defensive about who they are and should be accountable for their message.