Steven Brill does a 180: teachers and unions can save our schools

The clamor for education reform continues on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, but not in the manner you might think. Rather than calling for vouchers, charter schools, and an end to collective bargaining, guest columnist Steven Brill suggests that the solution for saving our schools will be found in the skill and leadership of so-called ordinary teachers and the unions who represent them.

This guest post is by Kristoffer Kohl, a former classroom teacher who recently joined the Center for Teaching Quality as a policy associate working toward the vision of TEACHING 2030.

The clamor for education reform continues on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, but not in the manner you might think. Rather than calling for vouchers, charter schools, and an end to collective bargaining, guest columnist Steven Brill suggests that the solution for saving our schools will be found in the skill and leadership of so-called ordinary teachers and the unions who represent them.

In an essay that appeared in Saturday’s print edition, Brill, author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, dispels some of the myths that have informed faulty proposals for fixing public education. With 50 million students in 95,000 public schools, we cannot charter-school our way to meaningful reform, nor can we rely on the unsustainable model of super-teachers working endless hours at a tireless pace. In a profession numbering over three million, it is the “rank and file” that must be mobilized for actual reform to take root. Brill nods to the profound role that organized labor will play in the process by adding, “The unions are the organizational link that will enable school improvement to expand beyond the ability of extraordinary people to work extraordinary hours.”

I could not agree more. Teaching is the nation’s largest college-educated occupation, and we need millions of teachers to work together over time in their communities (and in and out of cyberspace) to serve students and families well. As Gary Sykes and Dick Elmore suggested decades ago, it is time to build a school system in which ordinary people can do the extraordinary work of education.

As a Teach for America alum who taught in Las Vegas for almost five years, I can attest to the need to focus on the working conditions that allow teachers to teach effectively.

As the Center for Teaching Quality continues to evolve, we are working with teachers to rethink what it means to “organize” as a profession. We encourage unions to set aside their past rules and tools (which won them much-needed concessions from reluctant administrators) to become professional guilds. Transformed in this way, unions could enforce teaching standards among the ranks and broker the kind of teacherpreneurial efforts needed for 21st-century schools.

In the post-industrial age, teachers need professional organizations that defend not only their rights but their profession’s commitment to high standards, the interests of children, and a public education system that protects American democracy and spreads the expertise of its most effective practitioners.

Imagine if teachers were to earn differentiated membership into their unions based on the quality of their teaching. Imagine union leaders selected for their classroom expertise as well as their leadership skills and organizational prowess. How might such a leadership structure dramatically alter the voice that unions have in the reform debate?

As recent survey results from the Gallup/PDK Poll on public education demonstrate, the American public trusts teachers and believes they should have the flexibility to teach in the ways they think best without being tied to a prescribed curriculum. Likewise, we should trust the perspective of teachers and demand a meaningful role for them when big decisions are being made about education in this country. Too often, education policy is crafted by those who have never taught in a classroom. With the nation’s best teachers informing policy decisions, legislative mandates would be driven by the realities and challenges of our schools.

Our New Millennium Initiative teachers in Colorado (part of a larger network that includes communities in Washington, Illinois, Florida, and California) are promoting a series of innovative solutions related to implementation of the state’s teacher evaluation legislation, SB 191, also known as the Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Educator Effectiveness Act.  In his new book, Brill describes the Colorado law as landmark legislation. However, SB 191 and similar laws will fail unless we use new technologies and organizational structures that equip expert teachers to implement high quality teaching evaluation systems.

It is reassuring to hear that Steven Brill has opened up the conversation a bit more for teachers to lead the way.

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