Two new books that investigate the role of the most powerful and controversial actors in America’s education system.
The italicized and underlined sentences are my highlights.
AUGUST 20, 2011
Learning the Hard War
The reformers who want to save the public schools are starting to make a difference, against ferocious opposition
By JOEL KLEIN
Like so many debates in America today, the fight over public education is as polarized as it is consequential. There appears to be a general sense of agreement that the results we are getting are woefully inadequate, especially given the demands that a high-tech, global economy will place on our future work force. Nevertheless, there’s a sharp disagreement over exactly what to do.
Spending more money is of course a perennial demand. Since 1970 America has more than doubled the real dollars spent on K-12 education. We have increased the number of teachers by more than a third, created legions of nonteaching staff, and raised salaries and benefits across the board. Yet fewer than 40% of the students who graduate from high school are ready for college. At the same time, students in other countries are moving ahead of us, scoring higher—often much higher—on international tests of reading, math and science skills.
The debate over education broadly divides into two groups. On one side are what might be called “traditionalists,” consisting largely of unions purporting to represent the interests of teachers. The members of this group argue that poverty is the great impediment to educational success and that we must lift people out of poverty if we are really to better educate our kids—and in the meantime we can’t expect schools to perform miracles. The traditionalists propose that we pay teachers more, hire more of them and spend more dollars on public education overall.
On the other side are what might be called “reformers” (some traditionalists refer to them as “deformers”). This group is made up largely of policy analysts skeptical of the status quo and young idealists, many of whom came to education through Teach for America, the nonprofit program that places talented college graduates in high-poverty, urban schools.
The reformers acknowledge that poverty is an impediment to educational success but argue that teaching itself can still have a big effect. They point to specific classroom achievements, as well as to various studies, to show that different schools and different teachers get very different results with essentially the same kids.
The reformist agenda includes two key components. First, teachers and principals must be held accountable for their impact on student achievement—rewarded with pay and promotion or punished, at the extreme end, with the loss of a job. Second, the current public monopoly in K-12 education needs to be disrupted, by offering more choices. These include privately operated, publicly funded charter schools—schools that are not bound by the usual public-school rules and regulations—and publicly funded vouchers that can be used to pay for private schools.
The debate has been going on for more than a decade, but in the past few years it has become nearly incendiary. The traditionalists claim that reformist ideas will essentially destroy the public schools and consign the children of low-income families to a dire fate. The reformers argue that, without the kind of major changes in school structure and teacher performance that they advocate, the crisis of the schools will get worse and worse—until America ends up as a country with a small, educated upper class and a vast, uneducated underclass, with few between. This is, as Bill Gates recently said, the most important issue our nation faces.
Two impressive writers now join this debate. At their core they share the reformist perspective and conclude that teachers unions—fueled by the manpower and money they can mobilize and the enormous political power they enjoy as a result—are the major obstacle to solving the education crisis. But they make their arguments from different perspectives, citing different evidence.
“Class Warfare,” by Steven Brill, is an extremely well-reported survey of the modern reform movement that is likely to have a big impact and will appeal to a wide audience. “Special Interest,” by Terry M. Moe, is a carefully researched analysis of the power dynamics underlying today’s policy disputes. Mr. Brill, a celebrated media entrepreneur and longtime journalist, takes us on a breezy journey through the education-reform landscape, written with a storyteller’s page-turning magic; Mr. Moe, a political scientist, offers a painstaking study, also compelling if less fast-paced.
Mr. Brill opens with a quick visit to the Oval Office early in the Obama administration, where the new president commits himself to an aggressive reform agenda. “Just make sure,” he says to his advisers, “that we don’t poke the unions in the eye with this.” The bulk of “Class Warfare” is a series of vignettes of reformers and traditionalists, and of struggling schools they are fighting to save.
There is, for instance, the story of two New York schools sharing a building in Harlem: PS 149, a traditional public school, and Harlem Success Academy, a nonunionized charter school. According to Mr. Brill, both schools draw “similarly qualified, or challenged students” from “the same community,” with PS 149 spending about $1,000 more per student. Nevertheless, at PS 149 only 29% of the students are performing at or above grade level in English and 34% in math, while at Harlem Success the comparable numbers are 86% in English and 94% in math. That difference, Mr. Brill asserts, “provides the most vivid argument for school reform. . . . Parents who had their kids, or who had neighbors with kids, on both sides of the building didn’t need much convincing that all kids could learn if their schools were operated without all the constraints imposed on the public school side.”
Pivoting off this revealing comparison, Mr. Brill introduces the dramatis personae of his broader story, including grass-roots educators that readers will meet for the first time and several well-known people, like Michelle Rhee (the former head of schools in Washington, D.C.), Wendy Kopp (the founder of Teach for America), Randi Weingarten (the teachers-union leader) and Arne Duncan (Mr. Obama’s secretary of education). Mr. Brill brings them all to life, describing along the way scenes from the reformist crusade: Mr. Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, calling for more charter schools, real teacher and principal accountability based on sophisticated data systems that measure student progress, and closing or significantly restructuring failing schools; the philanthropy of Eli Broad and Bill Gates, whose foundations, respectively, push for smaller, curriculum-focused schools and better-managed school districts; the success of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the gripping pro-charter documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim; the various battles between reformers and teachers unions, in Washington, D.C., and, not least, in New York, where the union has tried to block the expansion of charter schools (like Harlem Success); and some remarkable reform legislation passed in several states.
Mr. Brill moves nimbly through this narrative, telling remarkable stories—like the one of a New York teacher whom the union had tried to portray as a victim of callous management, even though she herself admitted that she had been terminated (twice) because, as she put it, “I was a drunk.” The author briefly refers to the now-infamous “rubber rooms,” the reassignment centers he first described in the New Yorker magazine in 2009, where teachers with especially bad records, whom it takes years to fire, were sent to kill time instead of, as before, being given make-work chores at schools.
Though Mr. Brill believes that reform can lead to dramatically better results, he is by no means an ideologue and devotes lots of real estate to the arguments of the traditionalists, especially Ms. Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. (“I may have spent more time with her than any other source.”) He cautions reformers to avoid excessive zeal, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip teachers of collective-bargaining rights. He thinks that the unions have to be part of the solution, though he doesn’t explain what will motivate them to get onboard. Most interestingly, perhaps, he suggests that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appoint Ms. Weingarten as the next schools chancellor.
As it happens, that was the position that I held from 2002 to 2010, so inevitably I appear in Mr. Brill’s chronicle. I am deeply identified with the reformist camp, and Mr. Brill is (mostly) complimentary of the reforms that took place during my tenure. Nevertheless, he claims that we did not push the teachers union hard enough, suggesting that Mayor Bloomberg and I disagreed on union matters more than we actually did. What differences we had, I should add, were largely the result of our different roles, not goals. Mayor Bloomberg was running the city, setting the education-reform agenda but at the same time dealing with the unions on a host of matters, like pensions and health care; he was also negotiating contracts with other unions dictated by “pattern bargaining,” where what you give to one you must give to others.
In contrast, the mayor gave me a single charge—to push the school system, including the union, to move more quickly toward flexibility and better performance. Nothing good would have ever happened without the mayor having led the fight and protected my (very exposed) back. Mr. Brill argues that NYC’s 2005 teachers-union contract was too weak. I disagree. Sure, it would have been better if we had gotten more, but the deal we did get—ending forced-placement of teachers in schools based on seniority, recapturing a 45-minute period that had previously been given over to teachers to use at their discretion, eliminating certain grievance procedures, and extending the school day for some 300,000 struggling students by 150 minutes per week—was groundbreaking, and was widely viewed as such. In addition, Mr. Brill quotes me saying that the reason we didn’t get major reforms in the late-2006 teachers-union contract was because of the mayor’s decision “to run for a third term.” But so far as I know, the mayor didn’t even contemplate running for a third term until 2008.
Obviously, Mr. Brill’s canvas is more broad than New York’s particular ordeals and battles: His key point is that the reformist agenda, whether in New York or in, say, Colorado—where Michael Johnston did so much as a principal to improve his own high school’s performance and then, as a freshman state senator, led the charge to secure strong, pro-reform legislation—is gaining momentum, though often against fierce union resistance. The power and influence of the unions is the narrower focus of Terry M. Moe’s analytically rich “Special Interest.”
Mr. Moe’s thesis is that the unions’ ability to protect the interests of their members is virtually unmatched in American society. Their four million members are readily mobilized members, and they are, as he notes, “the nation’s top contributors to federal elections.” He describes the unions’ influence in every political arena and their constant efforts to shore up their power. For example, the teachers unions make sure that school-board elections are scheduled when there will be low voter turnout, making it easy to control the outcome with the votes and resources the union can supply. School-board members elected with union support, in turn, are just the kind of “management” that unions like on the other side of the bargaining table when contract negotiations begin. In Mr. Moe’s view, this kind of rigged process helps to embed anti-student policies, such as teacher tenure, seniority preferences and lock-step pay.
Mr. Moe acknowledges a limited set of reforms that has had some success in spite of union resistance, nodding to Washington, New Orleans and New York City. He is careful to note, however, that each of these wins depended on a convergence of conditions, such as a politically fearless mayor in New York and a natural disaster in New Orleans, where new arrangements were made possible in the rebuilding process. Unlike Mr. Brill—who is still hoping that Ms. Weingarten can pull off a “Nixon-to-China” move—Mr. Moe concludes: “Reform unionism is among the most influential and seductive forces in American education. It is also one of the most misleading.” Many reformers, especially Democrats, want to believe that the teachers unions will change significantly so that powerful unions and meaningful reform can co-exist. Mr. Moe compellingly argues that the underlying dynamics—reinforced by a long history of lots of talk and little change—make this belief naïve.
Even so, Mr. Moe sees reason for hope. He believes that new technologies have the capacity to stimulate reform as well as alter the dynamics between labor, management and public policy. (Disclosure: Developing and marketing new education-technology products are what I’m now responsible for at News Corp., the owner of Dow Jones, this newspaper’s publisher.) According to Mr. Moe, education technology will customize learning, so that individual students’ needs can be better addressed, as well as offer new instructional approaches through interactive software and distance learning.
For things to really change, though, parents must become more engaged and enraged. When they are no longer willing to accept bad schools and teachers—and when the poor start insisting on choice just like the middle class and affluent do—the political dynamics will shift accordingly. The unions can’t beat the parents. Meanwhile, the reformers need to enlist the support of a new generation of educators, as Mr. Brill argues, by persuading them that teaching is less a trade-union job than a true profession, deserving better compensation and greater status but also delivering a higher level of classroom competence. Last, the public must be persuaded to favor an aggressive reform agenda and support politicians who will make it happen. That’s the hard work of democracy, never more needed than now.
—Mr. Klein is an executive vice president at News Corp. and CEO of the company’s education division. He served as chancellor of the New York City public schools from 2002 to 2010.
Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved