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.

477 comments

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