The school reform deniers

Steven Brill, author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools), takes on “school reform deniers” on Reuters.  Those who argue that schools are doing fine — or would be with more money — ignore the facts, he asserts.

I thought his take on compensating teachers was interesting. We could afford to pay teachers $65,000 to $165,000 a year, instead of $30,000 to $110,000, by rewriting the standard union contract, he argues.

 Among the ways to do that: 1) substitute standard 401 (k) pension plans for the costly back-loaded pensions that benefit the senior teachers who are most likely to vote in the low-turnout teachers’ union elections (and that now costs major urban school systems $10,000-$20,000 per teacher); 2) allow for slightly larger class size (which would free up $7,000-$20,000 per teacher across the country); eliminate the 10-15 sick or personal days in a 34-38 week work year prevalent across the country (and stop allowing teachers to cash in the days they don’t use); 3) stop paying automatic salary increases (now amounting to $5 billion a year nationally) just because a teacher gets some advanced degree, when all the research now shows zero correlation between those degrees and teacher effectiveness; 4) stop paying automatic seniority-based increases above what would now be the higher starting salaries and use that money to pay the top third or top quarter of performers the highest salaries; 5) stop paying teachers for doing union work or for the two or three years that they remain idle pending tenure-required disciplinary or removal hearings; and 6) allow for distance learning that allows more students to take advanced courses and implement other technology-enabled efficiencies that the unions have resisted.

With the saving generated from this “grand bargain” to revitalize public school teaching – in essence by swapping performance for protection — we could give teachers the kind of status, career paths and compensation that countries with the best public education results offer.

Brill doesn’t want to abolish teachers’ unions, he writes. He wants to persuade or force them to engage in real reforms.  He sees American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten as a potential “Nixon to China” figure.

Brill calls the New York Times review of his book “thoughtful” and Michael Winerip’s hostile column  “near-venemous.”

The book is a “surprise page-turner,” writes Liam Julian.

But Rick Hess calls the book readable, reliable and incomplete, but faults Brill for “with-us-or-agin’-us” dogmatism, which “encourages hubris, overreach, and the enthusiastic embrace of silver bullets (whether charter schooling, value-added, or merit pay).”

Never embrace a bullet, even if it’s silver.

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  1. “Slightly larger class sizes”? They’re already stuffing 31 kids in a primary grade classroom. Just how large are we going to go?

    Large class sizes might work okay if we grouped students by where they are in the curriculum rather than by age. But it’s insane to think that teachers can do a decent job teaching 31 kids who range from can’t even read BOB books to reading Harry Potter.

  2. Obi-Wandreas says:

    A few big problems I see right away:

    Item 2: If you simply lose sick days you don’t use, many people are going to use them even when they don’t need to. A sick day not used, on the other hand, is one less day in which a substitute has to be paid – a savings to the district.

    Item 4: How are you going to judge the greatest performers? Student performance and teacher performance do not have anything near a 1:1 correlation; there is a wide variance in the preparedness of students coming in, general student behavior, powers to discipline, etc. If you pay teachers based on the test scores of their kids, you are going to have no teacher wanting to take the kids who need good teachers the most.

    Item 5: The problem here is not that teachers are getting paid. The problem is that the bureaucracy is taking too long. The basic idea is that teachers are due a proper investigation, and you don’t take away their pay until you have properly demonstrated misconduct. The alternative is to make the families of teachers pay for the incompetence of the administration. Or, even better, if teachers did not get paid during the investigation, you would have an easy way to get rid of any teacher you wanted: allege an offense of some kind, and make sure they know that they will sit in limbo for years with no pay, thereby forcing them to quit and find work elsewhere, effectively ending any due process protection.

    Item 6: a gimmick.

    Don’t get me wrong – the current system is unsustainable and needs to be replaced. It needs to be replaced, however, with something that will actually work.

  3. Did he have anything new to say, or did he just draw his ideas from the vast databank of anti-teacher/anti-public school talking points the “reformers’ all seem to have access to?