The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York


August 19, 2011

Steven Brill shakes up educational establishment


Author Steven Brill, a Bedford resident.



Bedford’s Steven Brill is well known as the founder of the American Lawyer Magazine, Court TV and Brill’s Content magazine. Currently the CEO of Press +, a new business model for journalism, Mr. Brill is making his mark for his searing critiques of America’s educational system.

In “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools,” Mr. Brill takes on education’s toughest problems: the grip of the national teachers union; what it takes to make students succeed; the challenges of the charter schools and what to do when teachers fail.

Several chapters in the Simon & Schuster book, released this month, appeared originally in The New Yorker, including searing reportage on “life in the rubber room.”

In June 2009, Mr. Brill “toured a windowless room in a shabby Manhattan office building ... An unshaven man who looked to be about 50 years old was parked in a folding chair, his head down on a card table in front of him. Next to him was an alarm clock meant ‘to wake him up when it’s 3:15 and time to go home.’”

There were about 15 others in the room — all New York City teachers, among 600 in rubber rooms throughout the city. “All of these teachers had been accused either of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or in some cases of incompetence, in a system that rarely called anyone
incompetent,” writes Mr. Brill in “Class Warfare.”

Until the charges against them were resolved, which could take typically three to five years, they continued to draw their salaries, accrue pensions and other benefits.

Seeking accountability

We caught up with Mr. Brill, a resident of Bedford since 1981, last Friday, before he was to launch the East Coast portion of his book tour.

“Always as a journalist I’ve looked for stories about accountability, being accountable and not being accountable, about being responsible,” Mr. Brill said. “I had read in a couple of places, including the New York Post, about these things called ‘rubber rooms,’ places where the New York City school system kept teachers who were accused of incompetence or inappropriate conduct. They just kept them there for years on end because they couldn’t fire them; they couldn’t do anything with them.”

Looking for a way to get back into magazine writing, Mr. Brill approached the New Yorker editor David Remnick. “I ended up writing this piece in The New Yorker about the rubber rooms,” Mr. Brill said. “That sort of turned me on to the whole idea of thinking about the whole subject of teaching and accountability. The more I looked at the rubber rooms, the more I realized, to use a horrible cliche, this was the tip of the iceberg.”

The book is already creating a stir — The Nation wrote in the headline of their review of “Class Warfare”: “Biased slant misses point on education.” There is concern that Mr. Brill is stirring anti-teacher fervor.

Mr. Brill vigorously denies that he is “anti-teacher.” “I think a lot of teachers union members — teachers — are embarrassed by the position the unions have taken. I think most teachers would rather be in a profession where you’re judged on your merit, not how long you’ve been breathing.

“I think that’s changing,” Mr. Brill said. “I think some of the leaders are starting to realize their members don’t agree with this factory model — widget model — where everyone is exactly the same, if kids in challenged neighborhoods or coming from broken families don’t learn, you use that as an excuse to say, what are we supposed to do? We can’t make them learn. Charter schools are showing you can make them learn. Teachers themselves are not the villains in the book. Teachers union leaders don’t come off so well, but I think even they’re starting to change — and they have to.”

Mr. Brill points to a “fog of accountability” in both city and suburban schools. “It’s easier to know who your school principal is and to hold the school board accountable in a small area, but most people don’t do it, and schools, even local school boards, tend to be bureaucracies,” he said.

Eliminate Westchester’s school districts?

Mr. Brill urged a fresh approach to schools, especially the notion of consolidation. “If you just come at it fresh, like I do, you say, why would Katonah, Pound Ridge, Bedford have different school districts, with different superintendents, when each of them is the size of a middle school in the Bronx. What’s the entire population in the entire Bedford Central School District?

“It’s like the population of a city high school, yet there’s a superintendent, and where there’s a superintendent there’s probably a deputy superintendent, there’s probably a counsel to the school board, someone who handles purchasing. It’s lunacy to have all these districts.”

He said the problem is not limited to Westchester. “There are 14,000 school districts throughout the United States,” Mr. Brill said. “That is not a way to compete with China, Japan and Korea. With each district being turf conscious and worried about their own curricula, the unions can just pick them off and divide and conquer.”

According to Mr. Brill, consolidation is the only answer to cutting spiraling school costs. “How could it even be a question?” he asked. “Why wouldn’t you put a superintendent for every middle and high school in New York? They have the same number of students as the Katonah school district. The taxes are so high, the expense per pupil is so high, but it’s not really because of the teachers’ salaries, it’s because of all the ridiculous waste, overhead and bureaucracy.

“I’m sure if you said let’s merge the five or six school districts in northern Westchester, each of them would have articulate reasons why that’s a crazy idea, each would have a superintendent who would want to keep his or her job. These superintendents have salaries of $200,000,” he said. “I read in your paper one of them has a higher salary than Joel Klein has, basically to be a principal of a high school. That’s insane!

“The only way you can defend that is by living on another planet,” he said. “If you looked at it fresh like I do, you’d say, ‘Why would I ever do that?’ Why wouldn’t you combine the purchasing power when you’re buying textbooks? It’s sort of like Washington. Each side in Washington has great reasons why they can’t compromise on X — fill in the blanks.”

While Mr. Brill said Governor Andrew Cuomo has been “marginally better than his predecessors,” he said that Mr. Cuomo “clearly caved to the teachers union when it came to pensions. Cuomo caved to the teachers union when he caved to pension liabilities in local governments, and also the Race to the Top. No one’s going to get any of the money because they’re not keeping the promises that they’ve made.”

Mr. Brill pointed to New Jersey governor Chris Christie as an example of an effective governor. “Gov. Cuomo ought to be doing what at least Christie’s doing. It’s insane to have all these school districts,” he said. “You’ve heard a lot about him fighting the teachers union, which is true. Where he’s really drawn blood, gone on the warpath, is paying all the superintendents of the cheesy little districts, that have cars and drivers, $200,000, and they preside over a school system the equivalent of a middle school in Newark.”

Did Wisconsin go too far?

While taking aim at aspects of teachers unions, Mr. Brill said that unions in themselves are not entirely to blame for the system’s shortcomings. He disagreed with the Wisconsin approach, in which legislators limited the unions’ collective bargaining power.

“I think you need to bend unions, you need to harness them, not eliminate them,” he said. “They present the chance for the infrastructure to turn teaching around in the United States. There are 3.2 million teachers, which is the largest occupation of any but retail clerks, and it’s the only profession right now where you’re judged entirely on how long you breathe, not on talent, not on anything. That needs to be changed, but you need the union. If you just bust the union, it’s the equivalent of going into Iraq and getting rid of everyone in the Saddam Hussein government. You basically have no infrastructure; you have nobody left.

“There’s no need to take away collective bargaining rights; you just need politicians who have spines so they bargain for the children instead of for themselves,” he added.

“From 1989 through 2010, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers together contributed $60.7 million to candidates for federal office, far more than any other union, business, or interest group,” Mr. Brill writes. “With 95 percent of it going to Democrats, their impact on the party was in a class by itself.”

In New York, he says, “teachers for years have owned Shelley Silver and the Democratic Party.

Solutions are not going to be easy, Mr. Brill writes in “Class Warfare.” But he does see progress in the present administration. He writes that Barack Obama was “the first-ever Democratic president elected without significant support of teachers’ unions” when he took office in 2009.

Along with consolidation of school districts, Mr. Brill proposes higher levels of teacher accountability, pension reform, wider use of charter schools, even a longer or year-round school schedule — lamenting the September to June, 8 to 3 schedule of most public schools.

“The charter schools that work prove poverty is a terrible obstacle, but it can be overcome by teachers who are crazily dedicated, work longer days than the agrarian economic hours we have,” he said. “Most charter schools go back to work next week. Who set the school year? That’s when people worked on farms. The New York teachers union regulates the school day to the half minute.

Change will come, he said, because of unsustainable levels of taxes.

Despite the critique, Mr. Brill said that now is a good time to be a teacher. “There are lots of opportunities,” he said. “I think if the initial reaction to the book is an indication, people are very interested in this stuff, as they should be. As far as I’m concerned, this is the long-term economic security and national security of our country, and it’s also the civil rights issue of our generation, so it’s pretty good work to be involved in. The last frontier is education.” 

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


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