The parents: the force that can’t be beat

August 22, 2011

By Joel Klein
The opinions expressed are his 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 Klein’s reply. Here are responses from Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as well.

Like Ronald Reagan, Steven Brill believes “facts are stubborn things.” That’s why he found his two-year immersion in the world of edu-politics enormously frustrating. There, ideology and spin often matter most.  As Brill puts it, the world of public education “give[s] new meaning to the notion that if you repeat something that is plainly untrue enough times it starts to seem true, or at least become part of the debate.” It’s maddening but, sadly, as Brill demonstrates, even the mainstream media often go along for the ride.

In Brill’s essay above, as well as his just-released book, “Class Warfare”, he doggedly chases down the facts and repeatedly punches holes in the current protagonists’ talking points, especially those of the “school reform deniers” — i.e., the unions and their academic supporters — though he takes a few shots at the reformers as well. When he says the facts show that “public education is failing our children,” and “[t]his is not a matter of money,” or “not about class size as much as it is about who is in front of the class,” he’s demonstrably correct but, rest assured, that won’t stop the deniers from attacking him with cherry-picked data and flawed analyses.

Because of his commitment to ferreting out the facts through tough and thorough reporting, Brill’s a brilliant diagnostician. No one has previously brought the education debate to life the way he has. And not a moment too soon. This is the most important issue our nation faces and, unfortunately, most Americans either don’t know or don’t care much about it. But if they read Brill they will see that the depressing picture he paints of the current state of public education is (unfortunately) accurate and that, in no small measure, this is because the unions effectively promote their own and their members’ self-interests, even when doing so hurts kids.

Having diagnosed the problem well, Brill spends much less time proposing a solution. He says that his “prescription for how we turn around public schools” is “not by abolishing the unions but by persuading or forcing them to engage in real reforms.”  As to just how we either “persuade” or “force” the unions to do this, Brill mentions a couple of ideas that I discuss below. His suggestion in his new book that Randi Weingarten be appointed to run the NYC school system is provocative but, as he has acknowledged, not going to happen. Back to the real world.

Let’s first look at his view that we should “persuad[e] [the unions] to engage in real reform.” Nice idea, but Brill’s own analysis shows that doing so would be entirely against the unions’ own self-interest. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it’s “obvious that union leaders have a basic conflict of interest with their own members in [the reform] debate,” because treating teachers as professionals, rather than trade-unionists, makes the union far less important to them. And, as Brill also observes, all of the union’s sweet-sounding, reform-minded rhetoric “fades when you read the over-the-top lawsuits they have filed to block reforms, or when you cull through their financial records or their campaign finance filings and see how they continue to sponsor the politicians who take the most hard line anti-reform positions and punish those who stray and support even the mild reforms they claim to support.”

When it comes to persuading the unions, there’s another recent book, “Special Interests”, by Stanford professor Terry Moe, that’s well worth reading. Moe spends considerable time discussing what he views as the misguided notion of “reform unionism,” which is similar to Brill’s idea of persuading the unions to get on board for real reform. The simple truth, according to Moe, is that “beneath all the talk, important fundamentals are at work — and the fundamentals drive most of the action. Teachers fully expect that their leaders will protect their jobs, promote their economic well being, and win work rules that give them valuable rights and prerogatives.” Union leaders who fail to do those things, Moe adds, “do so at their own peril.” In fact, more than once, union leaders have told me that, even though a proposed reform made sense, they couldn’t support it and survive — and, they would always add, for good measure, that whoever replaced them would be worse for reform.

Let me be clear, reformers should always seek “to persuade” the unions to join them, and there are several encouraging examples to support this approach — some that I personally achieved together with NYC’s union president Randi Weingarten, and others that Brill recounts in “Class Warfare”. But so long as persuasion is the reformers’ only weapon, Moe concludes, “the reform movement will never get where it aims to go. It will never be able to build a school system that is organized for effective performance. It will never be able to simply do what’s best for children.”

Brill’s second theory of change — ” forcing [the unions] to engage in real reform” — appears to be more realistic. But how is that going to happen? Here, we must exit the world of policy debate and enter the less elegant world of political power. Educational policy decisions are made by elected officials who typically respond to those who support them and can help them remain in office. This is where the teachers unions have an enormous advantage. They have over four million members nationally, many of whom are politically active, and most of whom will get engaged when urged by their union to do so.  The teachers unions also spend more than any other special interest group on elections and ballot initiatives. And they’ve been effective in the political arena for decades, where they’ve built up lots of loyalty among elected officials as well as strong partnerships with other powerful groups, like the one that, remarkably, led the NAACP to join the union in New York in a lawsuit to block some 7,000 largely minority kids from going to charter schools of their families’ choosing.

In short, the unions are a formidable political force. Eloquent speeches by reformers or occasional political push back will not change that. What is required instead is sustained political work, at several levels.

To begin with, real change requires elected officials who are willing to risk political capital in order to do what’s right. We’ve had several recent examples: Mayor Bloomberg in NYC, Mayor Fenty in D.C. and President Obama.  Each of them tackled the unions — in Fenty’s case arguably costing him his reelection in 2010 — and each got results: Bloomberg and Fenty secured two ground-breaking contracts after bitter public fights, and Obama won major state-law changes through his Race-to-the-Top program.

But relying on strong leaders alone is folly. Their survival, as Fenty’s experience suggests, depends on building political constituencies that will support them, and push them to be even more aggressive. If that is to happen, we have to start with parents, who must stop tolerating a system that is failing their kids, and start insisting on great schools and teachers.

The unions know that parents are the only force they can’t beat and, as a result, they’ve done an incredible job over the past couple of decades cultivating them as allies. But, increasingly, parents — especially those in high-poverty communities — are coming to understand that it’s their kids who are bearing the brunt of the current union-driven, adults-first focus of public education.

Perhaps the best example of this is what’s been happening in NYC in the past several years. Under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership, the city has opened more than 100 new charter schools in high-poverty communities, especially in Harlem, and in NYC for the upcoming school year some 64,000 kids applied for 13,000 charter seats. That’s an amazing statistic and a tribute to the notion that, when given the opportunity, parents will vote with their feet. The political significance of these developments is monumental.  In the past, the teachers unions in New York — which hate the competition from the mostly non-union charter schools — typically could limit the number that would be opened in the state or city.

Recently, in a remarkable shift, helped immeasurably by politically engaged parents, the legislature increased the cap on charters over the unions’ objection. Similarly, when the union sued the city a few months ago to block new charter schools, it lost the public-relations battle, even though the NAACP supported the unions, because thousands of parents came together in opposition.

In addition, several states, starting with California, have recently adopted legislation called “parent trigger,” which allows a majority of parents to shut down a failing school and replace it with a charter school of their choice. The fight in Compton, California, where a largely low-income Hispanic community voted to do just that, has garnered national headlines, as has the aggressive push-back by the unions. Recently, when similar legislation was introduced in Connecticut, the unions skillfully defeated it while pretending to be supporting the parents. When a blogger named RiShawn Biddle exposed the unions’ duplicity, all hell broke loose. These kinds of events help to build more awareness and further political involvement.

In short, parental insistence on quality choices has to be the leading edge of reform.  I suspect that almost everyone reading this post has demanded choice for his or her own kids — none would say, “my neighborhood school, good or bad.” Why should the poor accept less? And yet that’s what pretty much happens throughout the country. If, unlike the middle-class or wealthy, low-income families don’t like their neighborhood school, they usually can’t move, pull strings to get a transfer, or choose a private school. That’s beginning to change and, as choice becomes more prevalent, the politics of school reform will change as well.

The next political force for reform that needs to be unleashed, as Brill notes in “Class Warfare”, is teachers, especially those who are new to the field and haven’t yet bought into the union-driven long-term seniority- and pension-based system that has long served the veterans. Teachers need to be convinced that the model Brill advances — where salaries can increase significantly if we build a system based on performance, rather than longevity — is better for them financially, while also likely to enhance public respect and support for their profession. This is not so much a variation of reform unionism but, rather, the creation of a second — and different — teacher voice in the discussion. Right now, there’s pretty much only the union voice.  Soon, there will be others, like Educators For Excellence in NYC, which will put pressure on the unions to shift their position.

Finally, as Brill mentions and Terry Moe elaborates, technology can significantly impact this discussion as well.  In almost every other sector of the economy, we’ve experienced a technological revolution, where the use of human capital has been restructured based on the realization that many functions previously done by people can now be done better and more cheaply by machines. This hasn’t displaced the need for humans; to the contrary, it makes the role of human capital more essential. People with deeper skills who can take advantage of tools to help them be more thoughtful, analytical, and effective are now in greater demand than ever before.

This kind of technological revolution still hasn’t happened in education, making it the last holdout. Instead, the nation has made a bet on more — not higher-performing — teachers, increasing the number by considerably more than half over the past 40 years, without getting results. Things like interactive software, which can engage students and enable them to move at their own pace, as well as virtual schools, which can bring learning from a distance rather than only through classroom teachers, will revolutionize the way we educate our kids. These things will also undermine the unions’ current grip on the system as parents and others come to understand that quality instruction is not only the province of classroom teachers. (DISCLOSURE: Developing and marketing these kinds of new technologies is what I am doing now at News Corporation.)

These gathering forces are still relatively weak compared to the unions’ long and well-financed history of political success. But the tectonic plates are shifting. As Brill’s outstanding reporting shows, the reformers are gaining ground while the “school-reform deniers” are increasingly having to speak in the language of reform. That’s an encouraging indication that the politics are starting to catch up.

But time matters here, and, for the sake of our nation’s future, we need the politics to shift more quickly and dramatically. Brill’s work should help to make that happen.

Photos, top to bottom: Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation talks to Morris High School students with New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein in the Bronx section of New York, September 17, 2003. Gates announced during his trip to the school that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving a $51.2 million grant to support the creation of 67 new small high schools in New York City. REUTERS/Jeff Christensen JC; Children from public schools in the town of Chatfield, Minnesota, help U.S. President Barack Obama get up after he posed with them for a picture, during his bus trip to the Midwest August 15, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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What hypocrisy! Joel Klein ignored the priorities of parents his entire 8 yrs in office; he acted as though we either didn’t exist or were too stupid to have any input when it came to our kids’ education.

Posted by LeonieHaimson | Report as abusive

Joel Klein presided over the alienation and outrage of NYC public school parents, who found that they lacked any real education representation; a tremendous testing scandal during which all of his alleged test score gains were shown to be the result of “dumbing down” tests; and the increasing segregation of the NYC school system. Given his abject failure, he entirely lacks credibility. Instead, we should view his “thumbs up” as a stygmatizing mark.

Posted by tedmlewis | Report as abusive

Mr. Klein, you are the man famous for playing games on a Blackberry while parents screamed for your attention. You are a paragon of arrogance and insensitivity, and your association with your new bosses, the Murdochs, seems to have made you even worse. Shame on you for even considering to write an article entitled “The parents: the force that can’t be beat.” In your tenure as Chancellor, you proved that parents don’t need to beat, they can just be ignored.

Posted by JosephMoses | Report as abusive

The force of the parents cannot be beat, but as Joel Klein pointed out, the unions have infiltrated many parent organizations and coddle the leadership to earn their support and voice on union issues. While many of these issues will directly impact the classroom and students, there are so many areas that are targeted for the benefit of the unions. Teacher quality- pushback; Student schedules-pushback; Education quality- pushback: Parent involvement-pushback; Organization input- pushback. There is no mystery to how education should and could be delivered to benefit the students and the cohorts most vulnerable for failure and inability to engage- parents are the primary educators and are needed to partner with the schools and teachers to best support our students. The contracts with the teachers union and principals union prevent many “poor” workers from being removed or relocated and it is to the detriment of our kids. Parents are very well aware of the problems, but the administration and the union are organized and parent groups are not as well organized. We need change and it is not going to happen until the services provided are devised towards the needs of the students, the receivers of the education services.

Posted by JANEDOENYC | Report as abusive

What about all the European countries that beat US students year after year in all those achievement tests??
European countries work force is 90% unionized. How do you explain that Mr. Kline??
My humble opinion is that all our education woes are due to the fact that our society values $$$ over knowledge, plus dumb populous which was never thought critical thinking skills is a better consumer of the crap that’s advertised on Fox TV channels and way easier to control.

Posted by 74LS08 | Report as abusive


I don’t think that “90% unionized” is correct, neither that unions and education can be rolled up into one in Europe: it’s still a very disparate region. What may play a part, however, is the propensity of Anglo-Saxons who are able to pay for it, to avoid problems in education with (highly) paid private schools. And leave unreasonable unions and administrators to the poor.

Posted by Lambick | Report as abusive

Hearing from Joel Klein, one of education’s most powerful leaders that have led our schools into darkness employing White Chalk Crime, an organized version of white collar crime special for education, we now know what is at the heart of the battle for our schools. It is winning over the parents. I figured that out years ago and wrote a book explaining exactly what is going on: White Chalk Crime: The REAL Reason Schools Fail. However, excellent teachers have no voice in this GAME and believe me it is a GAME. Thus, few will ever read my book. I realized that and have worked hard to get an investigative reporter or Oprah to use the power they have that teachers do not have to get the truth out there and I will keep trying as our children and our society is the loser if parents don’t figure this out. Listening to propaganda spewed by Joel Klein, the master of trashing quality teachers while turning education into a convenient business opportunity is sickening. If parents really knew that what these White Chalk Criminals are creating is institutionalized child abuse, they would not be on their side! Granted the unions have failed the parents too. But what parents don’t know is they are also failing the teachers. Unions are not the teachers. The excellent, professional, caring teachers are silenced by unions as well as the Joel Klein’s. Until you hear from us expect dismal results in our schools.

Posted by teacherkh | Report as abusive

Why is there this assumption that Charter schools are better for kids? Studies show that for the most part, charters perform no better than regular public schools.

Posted by hw1 | Report as abusive

Mr. Kleine, the teacher is on the front line, there’s no denying it. But why the absolute denial of any other factor in the “battle” to educate children? More to the point, why the unconditional support of reformers comfortable in criticizing with such a narrow scope? It would be one thing if the out front reformers were experienced teachers saying “here are the things teaching real kids in real classrooms has shown me…” but this is not the case. It would be another if these reformers said “our teachers sacrifice a lot to meet ever increasing demands and do what they can for students- even our most challenging. Now is the time to join them in reforming education.” This is not the approach taken. Reformers, many with no significant experience in a classroom,are allowed credibility they haven’t earned. Their arguments have assumed weight they don’t deserve. Teachers not only work together to meet ever changing and often unfunded mandates from above, they give their hearts,souls and spend some of their own wages to make the most needy feel cared for,safe,valued and capable. While outside of school the “free market” rages on, victimizing most families and imposing great negative influence,teachers still push students to prepare them for the future. The reformers do not mention the societal differences between America and the countries we supposedly compare poorly to. They don’t mention the well paid,qualified and unionized teaching forces that prepare kids to become adults in more equitable societies. It is easier to point at schools and teachers than have their backs, pitch in and join in turning eager young kids into capable citizens. Teachers have always stepped forward, voulunteering to climb that hill and take the offensive. We should look at who has stepped back,looked away and weaseled out of their responsibilities.

Posted by DMaxMJ | Report as abusive

Its interesting to see Klein claim that “facts are stubborn things” and then provide an entire article void of any relevant statistics. How about the facts that Klein’s biggest success was simply closing down schools. He always states how he closed down so many failing schools yet he never states how many schools he turned into higher performing schools. It is like a basketball player lauding how many shots he took during a game while not telling people how many of those shots he actually made. It also should be noted that Fenty in Washington was voted out by the people, that became upset with his education policies that led to further segregation of schools and communities. Over Fenty’s and Rhee’s tenure the gap between the wealthy and the poor and white and black students on standardized tests actually increased. How funny this fact is rarely discussed on TV. (It is absurd that Klein actually thinks the media is backing unions in this whole debate, simply watching five minutes of NBC’s Education Nation or CNN’s reports would prove otherwise). It is also funny that Klein forgot to mention his own and Rhee’s testing controversies. And finally unions do have a conflict of interest in the debate but so do Klein and reformers who make millions from these “reform” movements. Klein gets book deals, and now works in the private sector for his “reform” movements while at the same time gets to be labeled as this altruistic individual trying to “save our children.” Others like him (Rhee, Canada) also receive upper 6-7 digit salaries, while parading in front of cameras. This is the same conflict of interest as the unions, however, somehow these few individuals are louder and more vocal on tv and in the news than the all the teachers and unions.

Posted by No.37 | Report as abusive