American investigative journalist Steven Brill, author of the latest book entitled Class Warfare, has stirred up another hornet’s nest in the world of education. The main title of the book is exactly the same as that of an earlier Canadian title, Maude Barlow and Heather-jane Robertson’s Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada’s Schools, but the two books inhabit parallel universes in education. Each book casts teacher unionism in a radically different light and offers a completely different prescription for what ails public education.
Brill, the founder of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, is certainly a quick study. Just two years ago, he stumbled into the School Wars while writing a feature for The New Yorker about the New York City public system’s “rubber rooms” where teachers accused of misconduct were hived-off, putting in time for full pay, sometimes for years on end. His brand new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, probes deeply into the state of the school reform movement in the United States. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/08/26/steven-brill-on-school-reform-in-new-book-class-warfare.print.html
The American Education Debate sparked by Brill’s Class Warfare is reminiscent of the furor generated by the 2010 feature film Waiting for Superman. His book explores the origins of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, the success of American public charter schools, and the plight of idealistic teachers chewed up by the system. What emerges is another stinging critique of American teacher unionism and its new defenders, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier and the so-called “school reform deniers.” http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2011/08/21/the-school-reform-deniers/
Barlow and Robertson’s 1996 book Class Warfare responded to Canadian education critics by raising alarm bells about the so-called “privatization” of the Canadian educational system. The Canadian duo, unlike Brill, completely rejected any and all evidence that the public schools were failing our kids. “Our literacy rates are among the highest in the world, ” they declared. “We are turning out scientists faster than the economy can absorb them. And our curriculum reflects the kind of society Canadians want.” Big corporations, the Christian right, and Albertan charter schoolers were painted black and the Canadian teacher unions were the “progressives” virtually at one with godliness. http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/Class-Warfare-Assault-Canadas-Schools-Maude-Barlow-Heather-Jane-Robertson/9781550135596-item.html
Barlow and Robertson quickly became the darlings of the Canadian teachers federations and were, in hindsight, the first generation of Canadian “school reform deniers.” Presidents of Ontario’s local teacher union branches, like Fred Mayor and Lynn Johnston (York Region), provided elected school trustees with free copies to immunize them against “the attack on public education as it continues on many fronts.” At a time before the return of standardized testing when charter schools were merely a concept, the Ontario teacher unions saw Barlow and Robertson as the first line of defense against “business interests” seeking “control over public education.”
American political and civic leaders, unlike their Canadian counterparts, have undergone quite an awakening. Liberal Democrats like former San Diego schools head Alan Bersin led the way and came to the same realization as Joel Klein, Superintendent of New York’s schools. “It didn’t even take me ninety days,” Bersin reports in Class Warfare, “before I went from being a Democrat who always thought the unions were the good guys to realizing that unions were not the good guys—that the Democratic Party and the school reform movement had run into a rock because of the transformation of the teachers’ union movement from the ’60s to the ’90s from a progressive force to the most conservative force in the mix.”
Canadian educational leaders, with a few notable exceptions, remain oblivious to such discoveries. Among the national press British Columbia columnist Gary Mason is one of those who has, at least, begun to ask the right questions. In The Globe and Mail (August 25, 2011, he drew attention to the inherent lessons of Steven Brill’s new book. While Mason clearly sees that the American education system is in far worse shape than ours, he continues to be critical of unions like the BC Teachers Federation for their blind adherence to the status quo. For him, the BCTF’s rigidity and defense of teacher tenure is indicative of a broader problem. The rhetoric is “progressive”; the real priority is now “union protection” not the kids. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/teachers-who-dont-deserve-union-protection/article2140640/
American education is in the throes of a crisis where there is no room for complacency. Yet the standard line of defense in Canadian education still follows the same “talking points” served up in Barlow and Robertson’s 1996 book. School reforms like charter schools and teacher quality initiatives are too often simply dismissed as “privatization” initiatives. Stripping away the progressive “talking points,” the union’s progressive talk amounts to a defense of special entitlements, iron-clad contracts, and empty slogans that stand in the way of genuine school reform and public accountability for results.
The American Education Debate sparked by Brill’s Class Struggle is the latest round in what has become a noisy “dialogue of the deaf.” Any hopes for an American adult conversation on classroom reform were quickly dashed when shouting matches broke out in the media among those on various sides of the education debate.
In Canada, the fundamental debate remains sublimated or muffled by the relative power and influence of the “core interests” who dominate provincial education systems – the superintendents, education faculties, and the teacher unions, staunchly supported by the Canadian Education Association and its surrogates. Even the most prominent parent advocacy group, People for Education, simply parrots the “fund more of the same” philosophy of the American school reform deniers. http://www.peopleforeducation.com/
What lies at the root of the problem identified in Steven Brill’s Class Warfare? Should Canadians be asking similar questions about their provincial education systems? How long will the Barlow-Robertson line of defense survive in the face of growing concerns and the undeniable success of Alberta Education reforms, such as school choice, charter schools, and the public engagement initiative? When will the worm turn in Canadian public education?