School Reform Grudge Match: Diane Ravitch vs. Steven Brill

tags: education reform

David Austin Walsh is editor of the History News Network.

Few would claim that the tone of civic discourse in America is amiable.  Bitterness and invective are now hard-wired into our political life, with conservatives castigating Obama as an irresponsible, dangerous Marxist and liberals returning fire with the “craziness” of Michelle Bachmann (whose husband, they whisper, is a closeted homosexual).

The spirit of rancor extends even to wonky issues like school reform.  Steven Brill, the journalist-cum-entrepenuer who founded CourtTV and the magazine American Lawyer, has been making the rounds for his new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s School.  Brill, who first came to the subject of school reform through a New Yorker article on New York City’s “rubber rooms”—for the roughly 293 million Americans who do not live in the New York metropolitan area, “rubber rooms” were disciplinary centers where teachers are paid to literally sit and do nothing pending the resolution of complaints against them; they have since been discontinued—launched some barbs at the critics of the school reform movement, especially Diane Ravitch, an education historian at NYU and former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Ravitch, asserted Brill in his book, is a classic contrarian. “…[I]t was impossible to tell from her book [The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education] or our discussions what Ravitch [is] actually for.”  He went on to criticize Ravitch’s substantial speaking fees at union events as a conflict of interest, noting that in media appearances, “Ravitch was identified only as an education historian and professor at [NYU], not as someone who had accepted multiple speaking fees from the unions….”

Ravitch got her chance to fire back in person on TV.  In a truly inspired piece of casting on the part of C-SPAN, Ravitch interviewed Brill about his book on Book TV’s “After Words.”  The results, which aired on August 1, were contentious.  Within the first two minutes, Ravitch called Brill’s book a retread of the documentary Waiting for “Superman,” and noted that one of the book's heroes was Joel Klein, who, Ravitch noted, is now an advisor to Rupert Murdoch.  Brill fired back at Ravitch’s “cherry-picked” summary of Class Warfare, which he said “reminded me of how you cherry-pick your data.”

It got worse.  Clearly disliking each other, both Ravitch and Brill accused each other of acting as sockpuppets for hedge fund managers and teachers’ unions, respectively, and frequently cut each other off.  Brill repeated the argument against Ravitch he made in his book, declaring “I am the only one at this table without an agenda,” and he noted at one point that Ravitch “sounds like the tobacco companies” defending their product.  Ravitch, for her part, said that “I don’t think you [Brill] are familiar with most of the education research.”

But the feud didn’t end there—it’s stretched on throughout the month of August.  Ravitch’s lawyers sent a letter to Brill’s publisher’s, Simon & Schuster, on August 8 (which was later published on Eduwonk) calling Brill’s charges of union money influence on Ravitch’s positions “defamatory” and requesting that the book be corrected.  Simon & Schuster refused, writing back that Brill never said in Class Warfare that Ravitch changed her views due to union speaking fees (which is true), but “raised questions” about “the propriety of her appearing in the media as a seemingly disinterested academician when she had accepted undisclosed speaking fees … [from] groups on what [Brill] characterizes as the ‘anti-reform’ side…”  Brill repeated those points to Philissa Cramer at GothamSchools a week later.

But that still wasn’t the end of the feud.  Brill wrote an op-ed for Reuters on August 21 which briefly summarized his motivations for writing Class Warfare, and his findings.  He also took another jab at Ravitch, whose position, he wrote, has no substance, relying on mischaracterizations and “cherry-picked” data—he goes so far as to call Ravitch a school-reform “denier” (Leo Casey, an education research in Ireland, wrote that the rhetoric purpose of “denier” is to equate critics of the school reform movement with Holocaust and climate change deniers).  Ravitch got her chance to respond two days later, like Brill repeating her earlier arguments and summarizing her problems with Brill’s position.

And it still continues, although now with the help of pundits and education reporters.  Felix Salmon, a blogger at Reuters, took Ravitch’s side and tore into Brill for hypocrisy, writing that while Brill accuses Ravitch of “cherry-picking,” “his own data is invariably bottom-up and anecdotal” and based largely on his own experiences.  This has been a near-universal criticism on Brill. John Merrow, PBS NewsHour’s education correspondent, wrote on the Huffington Post that Brill’s clear (and understandable) distaste for New York’s rubber rooms heavily colored Class Warfare.

The most biting criticism was found in the New York Times, which threatened to turn into a new feud, albeit with slightly different actors.  Education reporter Michael Winerip questioned Brill’s knowledgeability about public education (dryly noting that Brill attended Deerfield Academy and his seeming about-face at the end of the book, where, after spending “420 pages” bashing the teachers’ union, he concluded “that only the union can supply quality veteran teachers on the [national] scale needed.”  Brill responded in the comments section online, defending his conclusion as the culmination of two years of reporting and accusing Winerip of selective quotation.  He wrote that Winerop “[seemingly] had been waiting to unload one me for years,” and used profanities to describe some of his protagonists.  Winerip responded, in one of the relatively few instances of a flame war on the New York Times comments boards, albeit a flame war with much better grammar and diction than is typical.  He defended his interview with Brill, his criticism of Brill’s data, and attacked Brill for his consistent “reporting” defense when Brill recommended Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, for New York school chancellor.  “In 35 years as a reporter, I have never been accused of being profane or inappropriate.  Nor was I in my many conversations with Steve Brill.”

Few would claim that the state of discourse in America is civil, and education certainly inflames passions (I recall bitter debates in the St. Paul, Minnesota, public school system when I was a student—I even participated in some of them), but Steven Brill, Diane Ravitch, and their respective supporters and detractors are currently engaged in a veritable war of words.  They still don’t approach the invective of the war between Democrats and Republicans.  Sure, Ravitch may “cherry-pick” her facts and sound like the tobacco companies, and Brill may be a defamatory admirer of Joel Klein, bosom buddy to Rupert Murdoch, but at least those are creative attacks.  Crazy, stupid Republicans and socialist, un-American Democrats just seem so … uneducated by comparison.

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