In this politically charged, insightful take on U.S. educational reform, journalist Brill (The Teamsters) weaves stories of successes and failures into his snapshots of the education system. With a focus on disadvantaged New York City schools, portraits of individuals such as Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach for America) and Dave Levin (founder of the Knowledge is Power Program, a network of charter schools), provide context and commentary. Levin seems hopeful about President Obama's reforms, though he concedes: "we finally seem motivated, but it's going to take a long time." Brill suggests policy should be less about resources, and more about "school systems where the adults never sit down." However, investigations into such initiatives reveal pitfalls— from burnout to incompetent teachers abusing unions, all of which compromise the future of America's youth. Brill paraphrases in a thrilling fashion, hinting at scandals, examining phenomena such as "Rubber Rooms" and the Widget Effect, and relaying impromptu speeches in Manhattan apartments from Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama. An advocate for "spending smarter, not spending more," his reform ideas may seem vague. However, with each piece of the puzzle, this philosophy gains clarity. Though his fly-on-the-wall approach can feel disjointed, his concluding remarks will spark debate. (Aug.)
An in-depth, impeccably researched examination of the education-reform movements that have swept America over the last several decades, as well as the obstacles they've faced.
The last 20 years have seen drastic changes to the American public-education landscape. For the first time, the United States is not the dominant player on the global scene, and in fact is lagging drastically behind most developed nations. Graduation rates are dropping and, even more disturbingly, students that are graduating are often not proficient in basic skills. Which much of this has been blamed on factors such as poverty and lack of community motivation, most reformers agree that it can be almost directly tied to teacher performance. The problem is clear, but the solution is anything but, as teachers are represented by one of the country's fiercest and tightest unions. Public school teachers are locked into lengthy contracts protecting them but, many argue, often neglecting the students.A bevy of passionate individuals, organizations, philanthropists and even politicians have cropped up with innovative solutions to these problems, and Brill (Journalism/Yale Univ.; After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era, 2003, etc.) follows their efforts closely. From his account, patient zero in the reform movement seems to be Teach for America (TFA), founded in 1990 by Princeton senior Wendy Kopp, which sends outstanding recent college graduates to needy school districts for a two-year stint. Not only has TFA grown exponentially, but it has also produced several other leaders of the reform movement, such as Michelle Rhee, the former controversial Washington, D.C., school superintendent, and David Levin, founder of the massive network of KIPP charter schools. With Obama's election, the reform movement saw a major boost, as the president championed a plan called Race to the Top, which awarded states with unprecedented funding in exchange for reform. The problem with all this reform, however, is determining whether it actually works. Brill appears to be pro-reform and anti-union, though he concedes in the final pages that real change has to come not from band-aids like TFA and charters, but from the regular teachers that reach the vast majority of students across the country.
The author tackles this beast of a topic admirably, creating a lucid, often riveting history that will be invaluable to the next generation of reformers.