With the exception of my kindergarten teacher, who was The Meanest Lady on the Planet, and my geometry teacher, whose obliviousness also filled me with dread, I have to say that I have been remarkably lucky when it comes to teachers. Most were good, and some were amazing. I’m grateful for both how they taught me and what they taught me. No doubt, they inspired me to join the field, and I am thankful for that, too.
But alas, not long after I began teaching, I realized that not all teachers were great or even good. Some were downright crappy. I’m pretty sure that in my first year, I was one of them. But I worked hard to get better. Unfortunately, while many new teachers lack adequate training, some don’t find their way to competence. Some get tenure and continue to deprive their students of the education they deserve. And because of rigid tenure laws, it is nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers. While of course no one would want a good teacher to be fired, the unions’ push to protect teachers has resulted in—let’s just call it overkill. This is not news.
But over the past 20 years, the tides of education reform have shifted. Whereas the Democratic Party was long known for its support of unions (one might add: having been bought and paid for by said unions for DECADES), in recent years, a growing group called Democrats for Education Reform along with various other key players (including New Jersey’s own Governor, Chris Christie) have been pushing for more accountability for educators, challenging unions to change their ways.
Steven Brill’s CLASS WARFARE: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools tells the story of this changing landscape, which includes the emergence of charter schools, the passing of No Child Left Behind, compelling data on the correlation between teacher effectiveness and student achievement, and the national Race to the Top competition, among other factors. Brill, who wrote a brilliant, mortifying piece in The New Yorker a few years ago about New York City’s Rubber Room (where teachers who’d been removed from the classroom were required to sit every day, some for years, waiting for an arbitrator to resolve their cases while they were paid to do NOTHING), has expanded his scope to capture a broader perspective, moving from classrooms to cities, to states, to the Oval Office.
Whether you are an educator, a policy wonk, or simply someone who wants to know what has been going on in the field of education from a political standpoint for the past 20 years, Brill’s book makes a useful read.