Teachers are rarely consulted when it comes to education reform

From the New York Times

by Joe Nocera

Last month, Randi Weingarten held a book party for Steven Brill, the veteran journalist and entrepreneur who had just published “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools,” his vivid account of the rise of the school reform movement. When Brill told me this recently, I nearly fell out of my chair. Weingarten, you see, is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and for much of his book, Brill treats Weingarten the way reformers always treat her and her union: as the enemy.

“Class Warfare” takes us into the classrooms of the Harlem Success Academy and other successful charter schools, where the teaching is first-rate and those students lucky enough to be admitted are genuinely learning. It charts the transformation of the Democratic elite, starting with President Obama, from knee-jerk defenders of the status quo to full-throated reform advocates. It recounts the efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase the effectiveness of public school teaching. And it tells the stories of the country’s two best-known reformers, Joel Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., as they push to establish performance measures that will allow them to reward good teachers — and fire bad ones. (Klein and Rhee left their posts as school department heads last year.)

And every step along the way, by Brill’s account, Weingarten is blocking the path of progress. She defends union prerogatives that protect incompetent teachers. She criticizes Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s effort to get the states on the reform bandwagon. For two years, according to Brill, she refused to allow her members to vote on a pay-for-performance system that Rhee had proposed. (Weingarten denies this.) In New York City, she gave Klein fits as he pushed for his reform agenda.

As most reviews have noted, however, as “Class Warfare” nears its conclusion, it suddenly veers in a different direction. Instead of bashing the union and Weingarten, Brill suggests that true reform is impossible without them. In fact, he proposes that Mayor Michael Bloomberg appoint her to be the chancellor of the New York City school system.

When I asked Brill what caused his change of heart, he responded gruffly: “It’s called reporting.” The two years he spent researching school reform had given him a far richer understanding of the complexities involved in reforming the nation’s schools — and that understanding was sobering.

His research had begun, after all, with an article he wrote for The New Yorker about New York City’s so-called rubber rooms, where incompetent teachers did nothing — at full pay — for years, while their cases were adjudicated.

What he saw infuriated him, and it gave him a stark perspective. Unions were bad; reformers were good. Watching high-performing teachers in charter schools and then going to a public school classroom in the same building and seeing a teacher treat students with disdain and indifference only reinforced his sense of outrage.

But then some things happened that caught him up short. Jessica Reid, a wonderful young teacher at the Harlem Success Academy he’d been following for the book, suddenly quit. And though she had told him that her job was affecting her marriage, he was still surprised. It drove home the point that teaching is hard to do well. And the kind of teaching Jessica Reid did — with nightly calls to parents, and nonstop prodding of students — comes at a high price.

Then he had a conversation with Dave Levin, the co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which is generally regarded as the best charter school network in the country. “If you tore up every union contract in the country,” he told Brill, you would still have to train not just the 70,000 to 80,000 teachers in charter schools, but the three million teachers in America’s public schools.

To put it another way, you simply cannot fix America’s schools by “scaling” charter schools. It won’t work. Charter schools offer proof of the concept that great teaching is a huge difference-maker, but charters can only absorb a tiny fraction of the nation’s 50 million public schoolchildren. Real reform has to go beyond charters — and it has to include the unions. That’s what Brill figured out.

He figured out something else, too. He saw that the whip-smart, politically savvy Weingarten was not the villain he had first imagined. He watched her cut deals with Gates to establish important pilot programs. And he saw her inch toward reform, including measuring teachers on the basis of performance.

The reform movement has long demonized Weingarten and her union — sometimes with good reason — and that is reflected in “Class Warfare.” But Brill himself is now where the reform movement needs to go, if it hopes to change how kids are taught.

Randi Weingarten can’t be the enemy anymore. She could be the reformers’ best friend, if only they’d let her.

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