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John Thompson on Brill's Re-write of Teacher Union History

Guest post by John Thompson.

It is a truism that when an attorney does not have the evidence, he or she argues the law. When lawyers do not have the facts or the law on their side, they tell a good story. Steve Brill's new book, Class Warfare, exemplifies that principle when indicting teachers and unions.

According to Brill's brief, teachers unions have a long history of outsmarting school systems. So, New York City Chancellor Joel Klein persuaded the union to streamline the dismissal process. Then, Klein and a Wall Street lawyer, Daniel Weisberg, recruited a "squad of lawyers to help principals paper their files." It should only take a "preponderance of evidence" to terminate a teacher, but the union lawyers still continued to defeat Klein's and Weisberg's elite team. Rather than evaluate the evidence that arbitrators found persuasive, Brill just cites Klein's opinion that the real standard for dismissal had become "beyond a reasonable doubt."

According to the evidence, however, the American Federation of Teachers has a long history of working with collaborative school leaders. Since 1981, the AFT has taken the lead in using peer review, known as the Toledo Plan, to mentor and efficiently remove ineffective teachers. From 2003 to 2008, 8% of educators evaluated under peer review were removed. In July of 2009, Brill "happened to read The Widget Effect," a report by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), which falsely claimed that only .9% of Toledo teachers were removed for performance. It also happened that the misleading and inaccurate report was authored by Dan Weisberg, the Wall Street lawyer hired by Klein to battle the AFT.

The facts are that the TNTP "reconciled" its numbers and promised to change outright inaccuracies in a new edition of the report, although they were not very gracious in correcting either their mistakes or their mis-characterization of the Toledo Plan. Brill, however, ignores the evidence and changes his story line so that it can conclude with an argument with a Harvard professor who he claims hung up on him.

On the next page, Brill writes, "Toledo might have been a mirage. Pittsburgh (which also adopted peer review) wasn't." Brill then praises peer review and other innovative evaluation systems developed by the AFT and the National Education Association. This raises the question of why Brill slanders the granddaddy of teacher accountability systems, and then lavishly praises the reforms it inspired.

Brill's story is that AFT President Weingarten would have never stopped protecting incompetents had she not been forced to do so. So, he rewrites history and, thus, denies the legitimacy of longstanding reforms undertaken by the union.

It is a shame that Brill dismisses the history of education that preceded his introduction to school reform. Brill's story would have been more rich had he looked into the nuance involved in peer review. He could have started with Anthony Cody's account of his two years as a peer review evaluator. Cody wrote of the teachers who he mentored:

In many cases the teachers were, in fact terminated, or forced to retire. As a union member I felt it was my responsibility to make sure that the teacher was evaluated fairly and given a chance to improve. But my top priority as a PAR (peer review) coach was to make sure those students got the education they deserved.


Brill used the same spin to mis-characterize the battles between Klein and Weingarten. According to Brill, Klein went for the kill because he knew that a woman as smart as Weingarten must know that she is damaging kids. Or at least that is their story ...

Weingarten, however, says that she initially tried to work with Klein, just as she has done with other district leaders. Weingarten played hardball in opposing Klein's effort to use test scores to evaluate teachers because, "no one trusted that Joel Klein would use them to measure performance in a fair way."

Klein's and Brill's evidence-free story-telling has poisoned our educational politics. Klein explains, "part of me thinks it's a good thing if the mujahideen come in and polarize this debate so we can win this once and for all." Klein says, "collaboration is the elixir of the status quo crowd." And Brill can spin Klein's outrageousness as a service to kids. After all, it makes for a more exciting narrative. If we really want to improve our schools, however, we need to respect facts, honor the law, and tell a different type of story.

What do you think? Were there teachers trying to improve schools before Brill came on the scene? Did unions start to collaborate just because Bill Gates brought a bigger war chest to the struggle?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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