In 2009, Steven Brill wrote an article for The New Yorker about New York City shoal’s “rubber rooms” where incompetent and sometimes criminal teachers spent their days collecting full paychecks while their cases were reviewed.
The article had a major impact in the ongoing discussion about education reform–and put the role of teacher’s unions at the centre of the debate.
In 2011 Brill continued to press his case in his book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools – where he detailed the demands of teacher’s unions for job security and work-rules that seemed at odds with the mission of education children.
We sat down with Brill to talk about what priorities schools need, how they use their resources, and what really works for kids.
MBD: When you first reported on New York City’s infamous “rubber rooms,” Joel Klein, the Chancellor of Schools in New York city said to you, “The three principles that govern our system are lockstep compensation, seniority, and tenure. All three are not right for our children.” What is right for our children?
SB: What’s right is what’s right in any workplace. That is a culture of accountability and measuring performance, instead of a culture of protection for the workers. You need some protection for workers from unfair firing, abuse on the job, or race and sex discrimination.
The only way you get salary increases, the only factor in the decision on whether you keep your job as a teacher is based on how long you’ve been breathing. The result of this is that we’ve had a public education system that spends two to three times as much per student and lags behind most of the developed countries in this world.
MBD: How do we get a better class of teacher in the first place? Isn’t the security of tenure an attraction for people who otherwise might seek higher salaries?
SB: You could pay much higher salaries by rejiggering the union contract. What’s good for union leaders is not what’s good for teachers. The typical teacher’s union election involves 20 to 30 per cent of members and most of the people who vote are the senior teachers or the retired teachers, not the young ones who are embarrassed by the union.
You could change some things. Instead of having a starting salary as $25,000 or $30,0000, it could be higher. And the highest salary could be a $165,000 not $90,000 to $100,000. The way you do that is to reform the pension plans-–which are lavish for those who stay the longest–so the teachers who have what you and I have: health insurance, but with a contribution, a copay.
If you ask a smart ambitious person coming out of college today, would you like to go to a place where you’ll have security, but if you’re a superstar you’re going to be paid the exact same amount of money as someone who is a laggard? Most people wouldn’t want to work in that workplace. That’s why the people who become teachers are coming from the bottom quarter of college graduates and what we need are teachers coming from the top quarter.
MBD: Even when I was in high school it offended me that my best teacher, an 11th grade English teacher, was paid less than some of the worst in the school.
SB: And if you talk to him, you would know two things instantly. If you asked him as an 11th grade teacher, ‘Who are the good 10th grade teachers?’ He could tell you instantly because he gets the results from them. Second if you asked him, ‘Isn’t it demoralizing if you are doing a great job in the 11th great, and know someone is going to go into the 12th grade with a crappy teacher?’ Of course he would say yes.
Now imagine for example Michelle Rhee, she went to Cornell she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. Teach for America was just starting, and when she got to the school she wanted [to teach at] in Baltimore she maneuvered so she could take the 4th grade students into the 5th grade next year. Great teachers want to see the work through.
MBD: Education reformers often bring up measures of parental involvement, or whether there are books in the home and correlate them with educational outcomes. Aren’t these often just euphemisms for race and class?
SB: They may be euphemisms. It’s true that my kids, who have two parents who went to Ivy League colleges, there’s always books in our house, there is talk of current events, and the New York Times, they have an advantage over someone whose parent is a crack dealer. But my book shows and charter schools prove those are obstacles that can be overcome. If you assume they can’t be overcome, you’ve created an excuse for failure.
If you don’t assume failure, and you put a premium on results, it works. It’s not easy. It’s intense work, its intense lesson planning, even eye contact.
The result has a lot of scenes from 118 and Lexington. On one side of the building is a charter school, the Harlem Success Academy. On the other side is a public school [PS149]. And the kids in the schools fit the stereotype. Same kids from the same community. But the kids on the charter school outscore kids in Scarsdale.
There is no magic formula. The school day is longer, the school year is longer. the teachers are hired on a one page contract. If after 2-3 months they are not working, they are eased out. One of the main characters is a 28-year old who becomes an assistant principle and that could never happen on the other side of the building.
The most important culture is an assumption of success, an assumption that we can teach these kids. Not an assumption that we’re just here with these poor beleaguered kids and if we can just get through another day with out murdering each other that’s the success. Success is not magic. It’s all about hard work and little things.
MBD: Is there anything public policy or a school policy can do to get parents more interested in their child’s educational outcomes?
SB: Teachers on the charter school side of the building on 118[th Street] are given cell phones and they have to answer the cell phone at night if the parents call. That facilitates parental involvement. You can’t do that on the public school side. When parents come in to the charter school they are greeted by the assistant principal.
On the public school side of the building they are greeted by a security guard, who says you don’t have an appointment. It’s a whole culture dedicated to kids, not to the morale of the adults, not the feelings of the adults.
In the 1950s and 60s when I was in school, maybe the lower 8th of male college graduates became teachers, but got the higher quarter of female graduates. So you had a subsidy, called sex-discrimination that made the public schools better. When Randi Weingarten, who leads the teacher’s union, graduated from Cornell in 1970s, she became a lawyer. But her mother became a teacher. Randi is really smart, and her mother is really smart. Her mother’s only option was to be a school teacher. Randi went to law school.
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