If only the unions were the problem

By Deborah Meier
August 22, 2011

By Deborah Meier
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Meier’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein and Diane Ravitch as well.

As I read Brill’s opening paragraphs I was cheering. Aha, he’s going to apologize for his New Yorker attack on the teacher unions! He’s going to acknowledge the difficulty of finding honest data for his students to use when it comes to education.

I’ve become such a habitual skeptic about virtually all school data for over 30 years.  But democracy depends on us trusting some common sources of data.  Yet, Brill’s attack on teachers and unions, and his defense of the new “reformers,” rests largely on anecdotes.

Yes, like doctors, lawyers or bankers, teachers need to pool their resources to protect their collective interests as others do as well.  The AFT and NEA are their vehicle for doing this. But their collective self-interests often overlap with what’s good for students.

Now, a response to just a few of Brill’s points:

1.  Rubber Rooms. I happen to know some terrific teachers and principals who were sent to the Rubber Room.  They left 30-40 years of extraordinary work in despair and dishonor.  It wasn’t the union that created the Rubber Room—but former schools chancellor Joel Klein.The fact that many never get charged with any crime, much less given the opportunity for a hearing, is not the union’s fault either.   Brill might acknowledge that the contract was created by two groups, and that both the original decision to remove the teacher and the subsequent investigation and final appeal are part of management’s responsibility.  I don’t blame my lawyer if the prosecutor delays an investigation or hearing.

But should they be “sleeping, playing board games, chatting” for their $85,000 a year? Would Brill have been happier if they were reading Crime and Punishment?  One friend of mine tried to get excused from the Rubber Room to volunteer in New Orleans after Katrina.  She was not allowed.

2. Charter schools. What about the many charters that have been closed for financial irregularities?  What happened to those kids?  What about the Stanford University study that showed that only 17% were better than equivalent public schools, and 37% were worse?

3.  Verbose contracts. Those long contracts are the result of two sides putting into print all their requirements.  Like many of the reform friends I’ve spent 45 years working alongside, I think there are alternatives to these contracts.  But only if we’re prepared to build trust.  Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Union, negotiated a different kind of contract.  Tom Payzant and the Boston Teachers Union have innovative contracts for Pilot Schools in Boston.  Steve Phillips managed dozens of public schools for some of the most difficult urban kids in NYC in the ’80s.  With support from the Annenberg Foundation, we developed a plan for a system reform offered to New York City in the early 90s—called Networks for School Renewal. It proposed ignoring everything but salary/benefits in the contract for willing schools that served 50,000 kids, in an effort to learn from scratch what is and is not needed.  The union was our most devoted supporter but the plan was vetoed by management.

4.  What’s “reform”? What Brill calls reform is precisely the kind of schooling I’ve spent a lifetime trying to change; one that resists research and ideology that has long claimed that most low-income kids need constant carrots and sticks, tasks that are broken down into teachable and testable bits, and a testing system that rests on  just bubbling in  “right” answers.  Not the kind of schooling I was raised on, nor that Education Secretary Arne Duncan or President Obama think is good for their own children. The most obvious discovery I made when I began subbing in the early 1960s on Chicago’s southside was that there wasn’t anything “progressive” (ala Sidwell Friends or the Lab School) about the schools the least advantaged attended.

5. Charters.   Most charters are far from breaking new territory.  Compared to their neighbors they have fewer special education and non-English speakers.  They often have more reduced vs. free-lunch kids, and their “turnover” rates of teachers and kids are high.  But then NYC’s Klein-era reforms have introduced such cream-skimming into almost all his new small public schools! Fifth grade test-scores are now the SAT of junior and senior high school in NYC.  Without a score of  “3” or perhaps even “4” your options are few.

6.  Seniority/LIFO/tenure. ”Last In First Out” is commonplace in many workplaces—with or without unions.  It relates to loyalty and fair play.   Firing people unfairly has not “plainly” become unnecessary in today’s modern age.   Discrimination is still alive and probably in some form will always be. Where has Brill been living?

7 Poverty. The U.S. has the highest percentage of child poverty of all the industrialized countries and ranks at the bottom in all services for children, including schooling.  Say that to yourself over and over.

We who have labored in education before Brill have long been adamant that our schools are not doing the job our society needs. It’s too bad he has little interest in the work the “deniers” have already put in as the original reformers.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Professor Meier, I am glad you’ve contributed a critique of Brill so that readers can gain a balanced view. However, I found you have not read carefully his discussion of charter schools in the associated opinion piece by him. Brill says that charter schools are not a magic bullet — that there aren’t enough good ones (although he does say the best don’t cream-skim), that most don’t outperform public schools, that we shouldn’t put our eggs in that basket. Instead, he calls for the reform of public schools directly. So on these points, I’m not quite clear what you are arguing against. — Kelly Searsmith (comments reflect my personal views and not those of my employer).

Posted by Searsmith | Report as abusive

Why are there any unions involved in education at all? Only the parents and the taxpayers should have any say whatsoever on what is taught and who teaches the students in a given community. The reason there are unions is because there is a lot of money — just like with gambling, where there is lots of money, organized crimes shows up. The same happens with public education.

Posted by bittercynic | Report as abusive



During the past few years US poverty rates have fallen slightly from their highs in 1993, according to the NCCP. However they remain substantially above their 1979 levels. Child poverty in New York is 6 percent higher than it was in 1979; in California it is 10 percent higher. Furthermore, due to cuts in welfare and food stamps, those who are living in poverty are poorer today than those at the beginning of the 1990s.

The Luxembourg study found that several European countries have child poverty rates rivaling US levels. Italy has the second-highest rate in the OECD, 19.5 percent, the United Kingdom, 16.2 percent, and Poland, 12.7 percent. In Sweden, Finland and Norway fewer than 4 percent of children live in poverty, according to the study. These countries offer some form of health insurance, child care support, paid parental leave, and tax cuts or child allowances for parents. However, European governments are coming under increasing pressure to carry out cuts in these social programs along the lines of the US


Poverty was higher in 1993!!!!!! Please don’t try to obfuscate with irrelevant data. Our measures of Poverty are far more lenient than those quoted in the article above which was just released on the Internet.

Try this–Compare our “poverty” in terms of ACTUAL possessions and benefits(food stamps are the best example) and you find that our “poor”, in a highly diversified country, are much better off than those in the countries named in the study.

Posted by Massagat | Report as abusive

[...] aren’t the problem: Sure, teachers unions act in the best interest of their members, says Deborah W. Meier at Reuters. But ”their collective self-interests often overlap with what’s good for [...]

Professor Meier,

I’ll echo the comments above by Kelly Searsmith – good to hear an opposing argument.

However, I have to also agree that it seems you haven’t fully addressed all of Brill’s points (not that all required any further addressing). Specifically, you don’t provide a particularly powerful retort to his condemnation of LIFO firing. I really would love to see an informed defense of that practice, as it appears to be a wholly self-serving practice that permits mediocre teachers to remain employed for far longer than should be allowed.

I think the discrimination argument is beside the point – plenty of industries have to deal with discriminatory practices, yet find other ways to manage contracts without an explicit LIFO policy. Is there some other benefit that I’m missing?

Posted by clearance42 | Report as abusive

To believe LIFO is bad for kids you first need to believe that veteran teachers with experience are WORSE than brand new teachers.

I requires a denial of common sense.

LIFO, or Last In, First Out, is to be used only when a school district finds itself short of money and needs a Reduction In Force (RIF) in order to stay solvent.

Laying off veterans saves more money than laying new hires, but removes the experienced teachers who are the ones who hold any school together.

LIFO is only a concern to those wishing to bust unions, like Michelle Rhee and her billionaire funders.

Who in their right mind would prefer to retain those who have yet to gain expertise as opposed to those who are already experts?

You know who? People who care more about money than children.

Posted by TFTeacher | Report as abusive

Thank you for this enlightening article. The bulk of the “reform” agenda (increased testing; larger class sizes; limited curriculum…)undermines the individual attention and creative thinking that real education improvement requires. Folks like Brill move us more towards a total test prep regimen that is bad for kids. If the “reform” characteristics are so beneficial, then why do the wealthy and elites send their kids to schools that have the exact opposite qualities?

Posted by tedmlewis | Report as abusive

Thank you Professor Meier for this cogent and compassionate piece dismantling the corporate propaganda emanating out of Mr. Brill and his ilk.

You and all the educators that continually fight to achieve educational equity in a nation whose hallmarks are staggering poverty rates and institutional racism deserve nothing but admiration and support.

Brill, in supporting the neoliberalism and corporate domination of education, deserves nothing but disdain.

Posted by rdsathene | Report as abusive

This assumption of the need to fire teachers that some of the above comments allude to assumes that the problem is poor teachers. Is there any credible empirical evidence that mediocre teachers is the problem? As a researcher, I have never seen any such evidence. And if it were, where magically are all the highly qualified one’s going to come from?

And teacher “tenure” dones not provide teachers with a lifetime job, it just requires that they be fired for good cause. All the principals that I know and respect tell me they can and do get rid of the teachers that do not cut it. Are these teachers “fired.”? Probably not technically, because like in almost any jobs, they “resign” when they see the writing on the wall.

And if union protections were the problem, then non union states, of which there are many, should show better students performance. Again, they do not. So, the attack on teachers union, just that, an attack on the ideas that workers should have a right to organize for their rights.

People claim they want the best and brightest in teaching. That will be hard to get if they can be fired willy nilly just because some administrator decides they don’t like them. And my experience is that it is over political or personality conflicts that most teachers get fired for–and these are often the most innovative teachers. How can teachers be expected to be innovative, if they can be fired if they do anything that any superior disapproves of? That is a real recipe for mediocrity.

If you want better teachers, the best way is to improve working conditions–study after study shows that what pushes teachers out of the field is not the low pay, but the poor working conditions. That is one place where unions can make a real difference, improving working conditions.

Posted by Nick-California | Report as abusive

[...] Não há aqui espaço para examinar mais de perto a questão docente nos EUA neste momento. Já abordei o assunto aqui várias vezes, citando Mike Rose e Diane Ravitch, acdêmicos muito respitáveis que defendem os docentes e a estrutura histórica do ensino público americano. Alé, deles, há outra educadora que acompanho e que vem mostrando que os privatistas usam argumentos contestáveis na defesa de suas teses e interesses. Trata-se da Professora Deborah Meier. É dela recente observação sobre críticas feitas por Steven Brill aos professores. Se quiser ver as considações da Professora Meier, clique aqui. [...]

Everybody seems to be in possession of the ONE SPECIAL VARIABLE that grants the superpower. It would make a good Harry Potter novel if it weren’t so sad that disaster looms as a result of trying to avoid a misapprehended disaster.

Posted by BobCalder | Report as abusive

Editor’s Note: Below is a response to comments by the author of this post, Deborah Meier.

I had only 1,000 words–so I didn’t answer everything. But LIFO has nothing to do with keeping bad teachers over good ones. If principals are doing their job bad teachers are people who have been and can be fired with or without tenure or LIFO–ad believe me, many are. (Some are convinced to resign–as is the case in many other jobs.) Re: poverty. Many studies suggest that poverty hurts most when it’s “relative” poverty. The USA not only has more poverty but the gap is greater. When we talk free vs reduced lunch we also obfuscate the difference between low income and serious deep poverty–and confuse ourselves about who is serving which group. Both categories are growing, as the gap between top and bottom becomes a chasm. And social mobility in the US also is comparatively low!!! It’s not a climate that motivates those left behind. And schools alone won’t solve it. But schools can make things better, can open up children to potential pleasures and possibilities that add to life–even if they don’t therefore catch up to the increasingly advantaged advantaged.
Better schools will take serious and real reform–led by teachers. Catching up to their advantaged peers will take reforms in our economy, tax structure, job market, etc.

Posted by smalera | Report as abusive

I’m a former teacher who was part of a LIFO reduction. Was I the best teacher in the school? Absolutely not, but as a young teacher, I know I brought a level of energy, enthusiasm, and flexibility that many of my veteran colleagues did not bring. Some of those veterans were clearly more concerned with collective bargaining than educating children, yet they remained and continued to do the same uninspired things year after year. As for the Teachers’ Unions, I noticed that too large a chunk of my hefty dues seemed to be going to campaign contributions and not to anything that directly helped students.

Posted by JeffinGenius | Report as abusive

To bittercynic….
Did you vote in your last school board election? School board members are the people you (parents and taxpayers in your district) elect to represent you in a school district. Unions don’t do the hiring and firing of teachers, school boards and administrators (who are not part of the teacher’s union) do. Teacher’s in my area have a 2-3 year probation where they can be fired for wearing the wrong color shoes. What other job has a probationary period of 2-3 years? In that time administrators, parents, and school board members ought to be able to weed out most of the teachers that don’t deserve to be tenured or have seniority in the first place(that would assume physcial presence regularly in the classrooms so the administrators know what is going on during those 2-3 years). Why should the good teachers who have proven their success be left unprotected because inadequate teachers are not being weeded out initially? When districts budgets are tight some just might turn to laying off those who cost the most in wages rather than those who are good, but not great, teachers.
Also, in response to deciding what is taught, again this is not decided by the unions (at least in the districts I have taught in) it is decided by the school board with teacher and parent input. How it is taught is often left up to teachers or departments as a whole.
The bottom line here is that taxpayers in a district do make the decisions for the things you talked about through the elected school board members. That is why the school board is there! If you don’t like the decisions your school board is making then get out and vote and pay attention to who you are voting for. Stay informed when those elections roll around.

Posted by lilrups | Report as abusive

One skilled teacher can effectively teach about twenty five students a day. With teaching software computers can teach more than twenty five million students a day. Computers can zero in on a learning problem from ten different directions and systemically work with a student until they exhibit an understanding of what is being taught. A human teacher cannot multitask and interact with each student with this kind of efficiency. What’s needed in education is not reform, it is acceptance of the reality that teachers are going to become room monitors. In today’s world that is reality, people in education know what needs to be done but cannot bring themselves to do it.

Posted by sylwadlington | Report as abusive

A rigid promotion structure for professional positions isn’t about trust, nor are voluminous contracts that choreograph every move a professional makes. The fact is, unions have a legitimate role in a profession where the job description is exactly the same the day you start and when you walk out 2, 50 or 25 years later. But that role has little to do with educational practices and teaching, yet alone student learning.
Bureaucrats running our schools and union leaders are both at fault.
We need a paradigm shift–That’s what The VIVA Project http://www.vivateachers.org is here to do. We want classroom teachers to inform policies and practices that create our education system. We want public schools organized around and for classroom teaching and learning. As long as we are stuck in this endless loop about who’s more at fault and who should be more in control of the workplace–unions or bureaucrats, we are not going to bring good and great teaching to many more classrooms, so students will continue to suffer. We also won’t promote the teaching profession, and teachers will suffer as well. Let’s stop the bickering and listen to what classroom teachers have to say about their profession. Please read what they’ve written thru the VIVA Project: http://www.vivateachers.org. Their ideas are sensible, actionable and reflect their priority–teaching students.

Posted by EAEvans | Report as abusive

[...] the responses here. Below is Kotlowitz’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein, Deborah Meier, Jennifer Jennings and Diane Ravitch as [...]

[...] aren’t the problem:  Sure, teachers unions act in the best interest of their members, says Deborah W. Meier at Reuters. But ”their collective self-interests often overlap with what’s good for [...]

[...] article by Steven Brill (from here and here). The other articles up so far are by Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Jennifer Jennings, Margaret Honey, Alex Kotlowitz, and Joel [...]

[...] Meier and Diane Ravitch respond here and here, respectively. While the point-by-point critique of Brill is useful, I found Meier’s [...]