Video of Steven Brill & WSJ Weekend Review Editor Gary Rosen.  Reforming America’s troubled education system requires a new commitment to training teachers and holding them accountable for their performance, says Steven Brill, author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.  But how do you push them to perform without burning them out? And what role should the unions play in this process? 8/12/2011

In a WSJ Saturday Essay Steven Brill writes “Super Teachers Alone Can’t Save Our Schools” available to read in full Here.  In his new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, Brill describes how an unlikely coalition of fed-up public school parents, Ivy League idealists, hedge-fund managers, civil rights activists, conservative Republicans and insurgent Democrats has come together in recent years to try to turn around America’s declining education system. His story includes his prescription for bridging the differences between the reformers and their chief antagonists—the teachers’ unions.  Below are a few highlights of his essay from Saturday.

Mr. Levin [ co-founder of the highly regarded KIPP network of charter schools ] would be the first to tell you that heroes aren’t enough to turn around an American public school system whose continued failure has become the country’s most pressing long-term economic and national security threat.

“It’s really sad and outrageous what’s happening to the children on the other floors of this building,” he added, referring to the public school that shares the building. “But we’re failing a lot, every day, on this floor, too.”

Mr. Levin acknowledged that he was at least free to try because he was not straitjacketed by a union contract. He could hire and fire as he pleased, set work hours, move the staff around—everything that he needed to make KIPP work.

“That’s totally true,” he said. But “if you tore up every union contract in the country that would just give you the freedom to try…. Then you would have to train and motivate not 70,000 or 80,000 teachers”—the number now teaching in charter schools—”but three million,” the approximate number of teachers in American public elementary and secondary schools.

As Mr. Levin explained to me, “You can’t do this by depending only on the kinds of exceptional people we have around here who pour themselves into this every hour of every day.”

A few days later, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Charter Network, conceded to me that not everyone is cut out for this work. But “to say that we can’t scale this is like saying we can’t build the Brooklyn Bridge because it’s hard,” she said. “Sure, we have turnover, but our teachers make good money,” and “they can advance quickly.”

Geoffrey Canada, the celebrated educator who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools, often says that children’s lives are being stunted by failing schools and we have to treat it as an emergency. We have to act now, urgently.

Dave Levin is an extraordinary person. So is Jessica Reid. So are thousands of equally driven teachers in traditional public schools across the country. Their success has punctured the myth that social and cultural deficits prevent poor, minority children from excelling academically—an argument that is used by the teachers’ unions to excuse systemic school failure.

But just as having superstar doctors in the emergency room is no substitute for fixing our health-care system, in the long struggle to improve American schools, these exemplary educators will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out a realistic way to motivate and enable the less-than-extraordinary teachers in the rank and file. They, too, need to respond to the emergency, but they won’t do it if all that we give them is a choice between sprinting and sitting down.

The lesson that I draw from Ms. Reid’s dropping out of the race at the Harlem Success school is that the teachers’ unions have to be enlisted in the fight for reform. The unions are the organizational link that will enable school improvement to expand beyond the ability of extraordinary people to work extraordinary hours.

That cannot be done charter by charter; it takes the infrastructure of the public school system. And whether those schools are charter schools or traditional public schools, that means finding, training and motivating 1.5 million teachers and some 47,500 principals.

Capable teachers may not want to stay for decades, but they should stick around for at least five or 10 years.

If there is anything that I have learned from trying to figure out the problems of American public education, it’s not just that teachers are toxic when they hang on for 20 or 30 years caring only about their tenure and their pensions. It’s also that teachers get far better at what they do when they’ve been doing it for a few years. Working long, hard hours helps.

But it also takes preparation, training, lots of feedback and introspection, and high expectations to turn a hard worker into a great teacher. A handful may have the necessary skills and charisma on their first day in class. Most don’t. It’s a building process, and it requires time.

If they are pushed the right way, the unions can help to create educational systems that can enable and encourage ordinary teachers to work harder and more effectively—and still allow them to sit down once in a while so that they don’t burn out.

Ms. Weingarten is smart and almost certainly knows that the way to fix public education is to make the rank and file perform better. She knows exactly where and how to fix the union contract so that it rewards performance and enhances professionalism. She knows that the shelf life is rapidly expiring on her standard rope-a-dope dodge that she, too, wants to change lockstep teacher compensation and overprotective tenure rules, but that this can be done only if all sides collaborate to develop truly fair evaluation systems, which, her refrain goes, don’t exist now.

…unions and their leaders can and should be enlisted to help stand up those in the rank and file who are well motivated and able but not extraordinary. That doesn’t mean yielding to the unions’ narrow interests. It means continuing to bolster the new pro-reform political climate and, with it, the backbone of the political leaders who negotiate with the unions.

Superstar teachers and great charter schools are saving thousands of young lives. But reaching into every American classroom means working with the unions—and persuading them to yield to the interests of the children their members are supposed to serve.


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