[Susan notes: Emily Miller's letter is on the mark.]
Published in New York Times
There are many things in Steven Brill's article that trouble me, but my greatest concern about the education-reform debate is the absence of teachersÃ¢€™ voices. When the country was debating the economic-stimulus plan, policy makers asked economists for advice, and the press frequently provided a forum for them to express their opinions. Yet when discussing education, the experts -- those who work with children every day in classrooms -- are rarely consulted. Many of those who were interviewed for Brill's article said that they want what is best for children. It seems to me that if this is a genuine concern, those who best understand the challenges and problems in our schools, namely teachers, should be asked what they think.
P.S. 24, Brooklyn
The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand (May 23, 2010)
The arguments underpinning Brill's article may be fashionable, but they are flawed. Like many observers with a newfound interest in education, Brill espouses the ideas that public schools are hopelessly broken and that alternatives to public schools are silver bullets. But Brill's facts donÃ¢€™t hold up -- not in his characterization of teachersÃ¢€™ unions or school-improvement efforts nor in his comparison of two schools.
No one is satisfied with the state of education -- certainly not the members and leaders of the American Federation of Teachers. That is why we are leading and collaborating on efforts to improve teaching and learning. In New Haven and elsewhere around the country, numerous A.F.T. affiliates have used collective bargaining as a tool to overhaul teacher development and evaluation, which is the key to having good teachers. And -- in the midst of devastating budget cuts -- weÃ¢€™re fighting for the tools teachers need to help their students. But this reality doesnÃ¢€™t square with the caricature of unions Brill presents.
Finally, Brill's portrayal of P.S. 149 and the Harlem Success Academy suggests you can make an apples-to-apples comparison between the schools and that differences in achievement can be attributed to whether the teachers are unionized, among other factors. In truth, each school has seen academic improvement, but Brill fails to note that P.S. 149 serves more students who are severely disabled, poor, homeless or not fluent in English than Harlem Success Academy does.
When the facts are revealed, Brill's arguments fall far short.
President, American Federation of Teachers
Brill's attack on teachersÃ¢€™ unions for the lack of progress in school reform misses the mark. It may be fashionable to attack unions, but anyone who has looked closely at whatÃ¢€™s going on should realize that the issues are far more complex. Consider this: Massachusetts and Minnesota have made more progress than most states in raising achievement, and both states have strong teachersÃ¢€™ unions. States like Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, meanwhile, have weak unions and have made very little progress.
Brill would have been more helpful if he had been more specific in describing the areas where flexibility is needed, unless he simply wants to eliminate teachersÃ¢€™ unions. Any honest observer would acknowledge that unions do occasionally obstruct changes that are needed to improve schools, but so do superintendents (and chancellors), mayors, state legislatures and occasionally parents. ThereÃ¢€™s plenty of room for blame, and thatÃ¢€™s part of the problem. We spend too much time casting blame and not enough time taking responsibility for bringing about the changes that are needed in AmericaÃ¢€™s schools.
PEDRO A. NOGUERA, PH.D.
Executive Director, Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, New York University
Brill ignores two essential barriers to using student test scores to judge teacher effectiveness. First, current achievement tests are not accurate indicators of what students have learned. While it is not hard to determine whether children can recognize a printed word, it is difficult to construct test items that show whether students can read between the lines, draw conclusions, recognize author biases or determine the gist of a long passage.
Second, student achievement is influenced by many factors. Research finds that family background is the strongest determinant of school achievement. School-district policies affect classroom learning, among other ways, by allocating resources and assigning students, teachers and principals to specific schools. Without factoring in these influences, student scores cannot measure teacher effectiveness.
ROSALIE FRIEND, PH.D.
Retired Adjunct Associate Professor
School of Education, Hunter College/CUNY
As someone who has been at it for more than 20 years, I can tell you teaching is hard. If our approach to educational reform continues to focus on punishing teachers for underperforming rather than encouraging them to improve, we're lost. The current emphasis on testing and "outcomes" in evaluating teaching is unlikely to do much to raise student-achievement levels -- good teaching requires creativity in the classroom, not adherence to a prescribed regimen.
If we want good teaching in our schools -- and this is as true at the university level as it is in elementary and secondary schools Ã¢€” we need to design a system in which teachers are encouraged, and expected, to be active scholars, not just in their subjects but also in pedagogy. Teachers need to be up on educational research about what works; they need to get feedback on their teaching from people who are genuinely interested in their growth and development; and they need to keep studying with master teachers. In short, if you want better teachers, find ways to keep teachers in school.
Professor of Theater Arts
Saint MartinÃ¢€™s University
Brill breezily dismisses the coming class-size crisis, a tsunami set to hit American schools this fall, when as many as 275,000 teachers face layoffs nationwide. In Chicago, class sizes will increase to 35 from 28, which is more children and desks than can fit into many classrooms. Teachers will be strained in their efforts to reach every student -- and the resulting damage to children will play out for years to come.
Yes, it is true that American teachers' unions have created their own obstructionist image by systematically ensuring that incompetent teachers remain in the classroom. But this doesnÃ¢€™t mean that those who have the hardest teaching jobs in America donÃ¢€™t need and deserve collective representation and protection. Unions and tenure systems need to be reformed, not dismantled. Yes, the teacher-evaluation process needs to be completely revamped to allow for dismissal of incompetent teachers. But the process must be fair; teachers must be protected against the whims of political principals and school systems. The so-called reforms that Race to the Top pushes on states would undermine this protection, endangering the careers of the good teachers along with the bad ones.
I am surprised that Brill's well-written article, depicting the rapid changes in teacher pay and employment policies precipitated by the Race to the Top, did not once credit or even discuss the state of the economy. Certainly when times are not so tough, state governments still compete for federal dollars, but perhaps they would not have taken on the entrenched teachersÃ¢€™ unions or made such radical changes if state budgets were not in such dire straits. Kudos to Arne Duncan and the Obama administration for leveraging the crisis to make monumental improvements in public education.
Brill writes about the informal network of reformers that has accelerated education reform. He overlooks a significant force, however: results-driven teachers in classrooms and in union halls who are just as eager to move the teaching profession into the 21st century. Teachers like myself are at the forefront of reform, and we are critical to its success.
I am a founding teacher with Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that gives voice to reform-oriented teachers. We have advanced common-sense reforms that improve opportunities for students, like creating an innovative teacher-leadership program for turnaround schools in Boston and including performance measures in layoff decisions in Indianapolis. The primary advocates for and leaders of these reforms are active union members.
I speak for many teachers when I include "reformer" as a central part of my identity as a union-represented teacher.
Nowhere in Brill's article is principal accountability mentioned, as it seldom is in this discussion. As a New York City public school teacher, I strongly believe there is no bigger factor in teacher effectiveness than the quality of school leadership. A good principal establishes a strong and tangible school culture, high expectations for teachers and students and a code of conduct that is both transparent and enforced for all members of the school. This is often the foundation of high-performing charter schools. The research shows that strong classroom teachers are the main contributors to student achievement, and more often than not, good teachers have good principals behind them.
I am a teacher of 34 years and a union sister for 34 years. As I listen to the debate over the Race to the Top, I become agitated. I believe a key question is being neglected: when will financing for our future students become equitable? I would give up my union, and my tenure, if and when all students receive the same amount of federal and local aid. I would willingly have my salary adjusted when teachers from suburban and urban areas are remunerated for their work equally. Maybe we teachers are part of the problem in education, but I am willing to be part of the solution when tougher questions get asked. Is it fair that some students are allotted more money than others?
Wayne County, Mich.
If school reform is to be seriously studied, a comparison of charter schools and public schools must involve random assignment of students. Comparisons in test performance are tainted by several factors, particularly parent involvement. Two schools (one charter, one public) sharing the same building particularly highlight this design flaw. Students with parents who make applications, attend meetings, purchase uniforms and otherwise inconvenience themselves for the sake of their children are a select group that is not comparable with the group of students whose parents do not do such things. A valid comparison of performance outcomes starts with random assignments from the same population of students. Until this is done, no conclusions can be drawn except poor experimental design.
IRA F. GREENSPUN, PH.D.