Teaching With the Enemy
Joe Nocera with an op ed in the NYT that gets it partly right, but he dismisses charter schools too quickly (approaching 80% market share in New Orleans and over 40% in DC), and is too kind to the unions. Randi is a reformer only when compared to her mostly-longshoreman-like peers. And, yes, deals will have to be cut with the unions, but the key is to put them under enough pressure – which Nocera wrongly calls "demonization" – so that the compromises that have to be made will result in improvements in the broken system. As for his last sentence – "She could be the reformers' best friend, if only they'd let her." – I have one word: HA!
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.
November 7, 2011