It’s not about good guys versus bad guys

By Randi Weingarten
August 24, 2011

By Randi Weingarten
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Weingarten’s reply. Here are responses from Diane Ravitch, Joel Klein and Deborah Meier among many others.

It’s not clear to me how Steven Brill, in his book Class Warfare, gets to his own particular Nixon-to-China moment—that teachers and their unions must be full partners if our nation is going to achieve meaningful, sustainable, systemic education reform—but it’s good he did.

Brill is correct: There are serious issues confronting America’s education system. Where we part ways is not so much in identifying these problems (although Brill completely ignores the devastating effects of the 2008 recession and its continuing aftershocks on schools and families). Rather, the difference between us is that the AFT seeks to follow the evidence of what works in our schools and in nations with higher-performing schools, while Brill chooses to see education as a story about good guys and bad guys.

In this scenario, the new good guys in education are card-carrying members of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFERs). They are funded largely by millionaire and billionaire hedge fund managers who will donate to anyone, anywhere, who will buy their prescription. The DFERs and their funders believe with a true missionary zeal that they know what it takes to turn around schools.

Brill’s bad guys are those of us who have spent our working lives actually helping kids. Brill attributes to us all the historic failures of public education and none of the gains. Any reforms my fellow career educators and I have tried are either ignored or, worse, marginalized as too little, too late. Brill’s approach doesn’t recognize the evidence of these reforms’ successes or even acknowledge our willingness to engage in reforms. This bias skews his description of the United Federation of Teachers’ Brooklyn Charter school, the experiment Mayor Bloomberg and the UFT tried in creating school-based performance incentives, and other union-led reforms.

Educating all children to ensure they are prepared for the world they face is hard, complex work. It requires us to focus both on where the evidence and our experience lead us, and on how to scale up and sustain our successes. But it also requires us to pay attention to equity issues, especially poverty, and to be innovative and responsive to a changing world. Brill acknowledges this, but he still opts to craft a titanic struggle between good and evil rather than write about the complex reality.

The AFT, starting with Al Shanker and continuing through today, has sought to reshape our schools to better serve kids, with some efforts more successful than others. It’s too bad that Brill chose not to include this piece of the narrative. Brill’s generalizations about what teachers unions oppose or favor fly in the face of what the AFT, our affiliates and our members are doing in schools across the country. Despite the deep and devastating cuts to education, despite the atmosphere of attacks on educators and public workers, the AFT continues to push for a quality education agenda. (See here for details.)

While Brill focuses on delays in teacher firing, we have been leading efforts to find real ways to assess teacher performance. We are designing and implementing evaluation systems that don’t simply sort teachers but support them and develop their skills at every stage of their careers. We are also leading efforts to revamp the teacher tenure process, which should be a fair process—not a fortress to protect teachers who don’t belong in the profession, and not an excuse for school administrators to pass the buck.

In his exhaustive critique of public education, Brill calls out excessively prescriptive work rules in some collective bargaining agreements. Some are excessive, as are some of the managerial practices they were designed to mitigate. But Brill is aware, or should be, that the AFT—since Shanker—has worked to replace the industrial-model of collective bargaining with a craft model that treats teachers as professionals.

Much of what is collectively bargained into contracts is an attempt to codify behavior that, in a trusting relationship, would never need to be codified. This has to change. Trust can’t be written into a contract or a law. It’s the natural outgrowth of collaboration and communication. Labor and management have a mutual responsibility to ensure student and school success. And we must transform this mutual responsibility into mutual commitment. Calling such an approach “kumbaya,” as Brill does, trivializes serious efforts to transform schools.

While calling for collective bargaining to focus more on student needs, Brill ignores many examples that do exactly that. For example, you won’t find any mention of the early work the UFT did to establish the Chancellor’s District in New York City to provide the flexibility, reforms and extended time needed to improve struggling schools. And on the highly regarded work of Sandra Feldman, my predecessor and mentor, to turn around low-performing schools, Brill is silent again.

In the same vein, Brill writes selectively about 2003 contract negotiations for New York City’s schools, when I led the United Federation of Teachers. His coverage of the late stages of those negotiations is extensive, but he completely missed—or chose to ignore—our call, at the start of those negotiations, for a contract more closely aligned with student needs. The New York Times covered our proposal, and it’s there for all with Lexis-Nexis to see (“Teachers Barter with Work Rules,” Sept. 22, 2003). But Brill doesn’t mention it.

I am glad Brill mentioned Hillsborough County, Fla., and Pittsburgh, two places where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested heavily and AFT affiliate leaders have done innovative, collaborative work, but he writes about them as if their work is impossible to replicate. Many other union leaders also are entering into agreements to move the needle on student achievement. A simple search, or an open mind, would have led Brill to progressive contracts in New Haven, Conn.; Baltimore; the ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County; and other districts highlighted at a groundbreaking labor-management conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Education last February. Conference attendees, teams of superintendents, school board members and union leaders from more than 150 districts came away with a new paradigm of collaborating to achieve student success. Yet, this doesn’t get a mention from Brill.

It’s especially surprising that the agreement in New Haven got no mention from Brill, who teaches journalism at Yale University. Yale President Richard C. Levin has praised the New Haven Federation of Teachers for the progressive contract and for its work in developing community partnerships. And there are other omissions. For example, Brill deplores lockstep salary increases, but ignores contracts like the one in Baltimore, which empowers teachers and aligns their pay with what we know works in schools.

Similarly, Brill is highly critical of what he sees as too few teacher firings in Toledo—a district known for its teachers’ rigorous oversight of the quality of their profession. But you won’t find a mention of that, or of the Toledo teachers’ recent decision to take a pay cut to make sure students continued to have art, music and other necessary programs. Teachers around the country, through their unions, are acting to avert layoffs and preserve services and programs that kids need. But again, Brill makes no mention of this. Brill’s one-sided union-as-bad-guy narrative simply has no room for innovative contracts or actions that unions and their members take to preserve services for kids in these tough economic times.

The selective use of facts continues in Brill’s coverage of the so-called rubber rooms that once housed New York City teachers accused of wrongdoing. Nowhere in this book will you find the fact that the United Federation of Teachers repeatedly tried to shut down the rubber rooms. Then-Chancellor Joel Klein, an education hero in Brill’s eyes, rejected the proposal I made in 2004 (“Failing Teachers Face a Faster Ax,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 2004). We tried again in 2007, again to no avail. But we didn’t give up, and thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and Mike Mulgrew, my successor at the UFT, the rubber rooms are now closed.

The district and union worked together to eliminate the backlog of unresolved cases and establish an expedited process for handling allegations of teacher misconduct. More than 70 percent of teachers whose cases were resolved returned to the classroom or other jobs they previously held. The closure of the rubber rooms and some of our earlier attempts to end them made front-page news in the Times, but these seem to have been lost on Brill.

That Brill glosses over these facts is less important than the visual he paints of teachers in general—in effect, that teachers can do it all and that their work can be measured completely and accurately by student test scores. When I think about these issues, I think about two of my own teachers—Mr. Cracovia and Mr. Dillon. They were my calculus and humanities teachers, respectively, in 12th grade. I recall doing poorly in calculus, and well in humanities.

Does that mean Mr. Cracovia was a bad teacher and Mr. Dillon was a good one? Or did the fact that I liked social studies better than math have anything to do with it? Did the fact that I rarely doodled in social studies and frequently in math have anything to do with it? For those who will judge too quickly and say, “No, the teacher should have figured this all out,” would it change your view if you knew that Mr. Cracovia saw me struggling and found me a tutor? Frankly, they were both terrific teachers, but in this day and age it’s too easy for people simply to convict a teacher without the full picture.

Some would say this is simply anecdotal, but it’s no more so than the heartbreaking story Brill tells of Jessica Reid, a teacher who does terrific work under difficult circumstances—and works long, long hours. When she quits, the narrative he has built topples from its foundation. In telling that story, Brill has to choose between his world view and reality. He shows, in the book’s conclusion, some dissonance, but I wonder if his viewpoint really changes.

Although Brill ultimately sees the need for unions, he seems to expect teachers to do it all, without a voice in their workplace, without the tools and conditions they need to succeed—that is, without all the things unions try to secure. Just recently, I raised these issues at this summer’s AFT TEACH conference, a gathering of thousands of educators who came to Washington, D.C., to improve their craft and their understanding of the classroom practices and issues that affect their classrooms.

I focused on the need to build a high-quality education system by cultivating high-quality educators—from excellent teacher colleges, with ample clinical experience, focused induction, and ongoing professional support throughout a teacher’s career, in an environment that fosters respect. As the Times‘ Sara Mosle points out in her recent review of Brill’s book: “Until the country’s recent economic collapse, New York’s problem wasn’t just getting rid of teachers; it was also retaining them. Roughly 20 percent quit after their first year alone, and 40 percent after just three years in the system.”

The poor working conditions that drive teachers from the profession also make it difficult for those who remain to do what they love: teach. To improve teacher quality, we have to do so much more than what Brill believes necessary. We have to address all aspects of teacher quality, including valid and reliable measures of teacher and student performance. That’s why I unveiled a framework for an evaluation system in 2010 that would incorporate measures of student performance, including test scores, as part of the evaluation. Brill covers the subject, but not accurately or completely. So, for example, he conflates the issues of teacher misconduct and performance to create a “gotcha” on the teachers union.

For the record, I was clear in that January 2010 speech that Ken Feinberg had been commissioned by the AFT to address allegations of teacher misconduct and not the issue of teacher competency. A year later, though, we did in fact apply part of Feinberg’s proposal to teacher evaluations—by using it to strengthen and streamline due process.

Even with all the school budget cutbacks, hundreds of districts are now using our evaluation template, and the National Education Association passed a similar policy this year. The AFT, the NEA and the American Association of School Administrators are moving forward together with evaluations based on these principles. But, again, Brill doesn’t mention any of this.

The education debate in our country has grown divisive and unproductive, and Brill’s book certainly continues this unfortunate trend. But in order to bring about significant, wide-scale, enduring reform to help all students in this current environment, we have to buck the trend, find common ground and move forward with a common purpose.

Brill does get some things right, and I want to give him credit for that. He is right when he says our nation’s schools need to improve, substantially and right away. And he is right when he says teachers and their unions need to be part of the education reform conversation. In identifying teacher unions as “the problem” with our schools, self-styled reformers look past many serious problems contributing to student struggles that we all must confront together. I look forward to productive conversations with Brill and others about how parents, teachers and community members can unite to improve outcomes for our students.

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