Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Opinion: Steven Brill: Brilliant or bonkers?

Here's Checker Finn's take on Class Warfare:

Jay Mathews isn't the only smart person to rave about Steve Brill's new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools. Tiger-mom Amy Chua, Governor Chris Christie, Mayor Cory Booker, and Tom Brokaw are all pumped about it, too, or so they say on the dust jacket.

Brill is relatively new to the ed-reform wars—which may have been one of his prime assets while penning this volume; he doesn't appear to have any particular ax to grind or ideology to advance. Though a neophyte in this realm, he's a veteran journalist, and a fine one at that, who first passed through the ed-reform looking glass when reporting on New York's notorious (thanks to Brill) "rubber rooms" for The New Yorker. He's Gotham-based, himself, and many of the battle scenes in this long but compelling tome are situated there. (Joel Klein and Randi Weingarten get the most mentions in a fifteen-page index.)

His approach resembles Bob Woodward's recent volumes on the real wars of the Bush and Obama eras: plenty of inside scoops, vivid quotes, extensive reportage, evocative vignettes and telling examples, lots of short chapters, a fast-paced narrative, and an ample supply of couldn't-invent-'em characters.

Not many ed-reform books are like this (Joe Williams's came close) and Brill's repays attention, not just because it's a rollicking romp but because it works through many issues, conflicts, interests, episodes, and people and comes to a measured set of conclusions that won't please anyone in particular but deserve serious reflection. If you want just the conclusions, you could limit yourself to Brill's final chapter ("A marathon, not a sprint"), but then you'd miss all the evidence that leads up to it.

Still, a few wee excerpts from that chapter will give you both the flavor, some of the wisdom, and at least a couple of ideas that seem totally harebrained at the start but, in the context of his overall examination, may not be so crazy after all.


Opinion: Steven Brill: Brilliant or bonkers?
By Chester E. Finn, Jr.


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