Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools

An excerpt from Steve Brill's new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1451611994/tilsoncapitalpar), is the lead story in the weekend section of tomorrow's WSJ.  Here's the intro:

In his new book, "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools," Steven Brill describes how an unlikely coalition of fed-up public school parents, Ivy League idealists, hedge-fund managers, civil rights activists, conservative Republicans and insurgent Democrats has come together in recent years to try to turn around America's declining education system. His story includes this prescription for bridging the differences between the reformers and their chief antagonists—the teachers' unions.

And here's an excerpt:

The sprint-like pace that exhausted Ms. Reid is not uncommon among today's school reformers. Geoffrey Canada, the celebrated educator who runs the Harlem Children's Zone charter schools, often says that children's lives are being stunted by failing schools and we have to treat it as an emergency. We have to act now, urgently. Who wouldn't feel compelled to sprint?

Dave Levin is an extraordinary person. So is Jessica Reid. So are thousands of equally driven teachers in traditional public schools across the country. Their success has punctured the myth that social and cultural deficits prevent poor, minority children from excelling academically—an argument that is used by the teachers' unions to excuse systemic school failure.

But just as having superstar doctors in the emergency room is no substitute for fixing our health-care system, in the long struggle to improve American schools, these exemplary educators will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out a realistic way to motivate and enable the less-than-extraordinary teachers in the rank and file. They, too, need to respond to the emergency, but they won't do it if all that we give them is a choice between sprinting and sitting down.

The lesson that I draw from Ms. Reid's dropping out of the race at the Harlem Success school is that the teachers' unions have to be enlisted in the fight for reform. The unions are the organizational link that will enable school improvement to expand beyond the ability of extraordinary people to work extraordinary hours.

…If they are pushed the right way, the unions can help to create educational systems that can enable and encourage ordinary teachers to work harder and more effectively—and still allow them to sit down once in a while so that they don't burn out.

…the fact is that the unions and their leaders can and should be enlisted to help stand up those in the rank and file who are well motivated and able but not extraordinary. That doesn't mean yielding to the unions' narrow interests. It means continuing to bolster the new pro-reform political climate and, with it, the backbone of the political leaders who negotiate with the unions.

Superstar teachers and great charter schools are saving thousands of young lives. But reaching into every American classroom means working with the unions—and persuading them to yield to the interests of the children their members are supposed to serve.

And here's the wildest idea in the book, which I don't support but I like the outside-the-box thinking:

If New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg really wanted to make his mark in education reform in his remaining years in office, he could try the ultimate Nixon-to-China play: He could make Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, his schools chancellor.

Ms. Weingarten is smart and almost certainly knows that the way to fix public education is to make the rank and file perform better. She knows exactly where and how to fix the union contract so that it rewards performance and enhances professionalism. She knows that the shelf life is rapidly expiring on her standard rope-a-dope dodge that she, too, wants to change lockstep teacher compensation and overprotective tenure rules, but that this can be done only if all sides collaborate to develop truly fair evaluation systems, which, her refrain goes, don't exist now.

I can see Ms. Weingarten now, standing with Bloomberg as she accepts the job. She would declare that times have changed; that we face a true crisis in educating America's next generation; that we have to move ahead with tough teacher evaluation systems even if the process isn't perfect, and even if management has to impose it the way management does in every other professional workplace; and that she's going to lead a new era of professionalism and accountability in teaching.

If a traditional Democrat appointed Ms. Weingarten as chancellor, it would be seen, correctly, as a big step back from reform. If Mr. Bloomberg appointed her—and relentlessly pushed her to complete a reform agenda—it would be seen as exactly the opposite.


Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools

Extraordinary educators are rare and often burn out. To save our schools, says Steven Brill, we have to demand more from ordinary teachers and their unions.


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