At the end of the movie Waiting for Superman, I found myself teary eyed at the plight of the kids who didn’t win the lottery and so didn’t get into the school that might be their ticket to a better life. In a way, it was even more painful to watch the faces of the parents. After all, the kids only had a little bit of an idea of what they had just lost but you could see that the parents wanted with all their hearts to provide something better for their child and felt that they had just lost their chance to do that.
This book by Steven Brill looks at many of the same issues as Waiting for Superman. Brill explores the history of the current education reform movement , focusing primarily on the Obama administration’s recent Race to the Top initiative. Brill is very clearly on the side of the reformers (people like Joel Klein in New York or Michelle Rhee in Washington DC). He is at his best when telling the personal stories behind many of the people involved in the school reform movement and when detailing the intricate behind the scene details of the political process. He doesn’t do a great job of examining some of the counter arguments. For example, many of those he champions believe strongly in teacher and school accountability and teacher merit pay vs. tenure. However, he doesn’t do a good job of examining how you evaluate teachers and schools, and in particular the validity of standardized testing or the negative impact that testing can have. Even though I agree with most of the reformers I spent most of the book thinking he was being unfair, until the last chapter or so where he briefly addresses some of the complexities of the reform movement.
This book affirmed for me that school reform, like health care reform is complicated. It’s not that hard to figure out how to best teach one student. A little harder to figure out how to teach a group. Or a class. Or even a school. But figuring out how to apply principles that can be used across multiple schools and school districts is very very tough and complex. It made me glad to be a homeschooler on one hand but also deeply respectful of people who take on the hard job of public education on the other hand.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the description of the details in the political process. It was actually quite depressing to read and realize how difficult it is for anything to get done in the government. For example, an elaborate vetting process is set up for the schools who are applying for the grants to be awarded in the Race to the Top competition. There are strict rules for any government grant process to prevent bias. That’s good, right? You would think so, but the rules are so strict that in essence none of the vetters know anything about education as none of them can have any connections in the education world or any opinions about the best way to do school reform. This means that the people who are deciding how to allocate billions of dollars know nothing about the topic they are judging.
The best thing about the book though was that Brill’s journalistic style makes for a great read, almost a page turner. If you have any interest at all in education, I’d recommend it.