Richard Kahlenberg on Education Reform

Richard Kahlenberg“How did the budget crisis — brought on by a recession caused by Wall Street — end up in the laps of America’s schoolteachers? How did teachers, most of whom work very hard every day to educate schoolchildren, become the scapegoats in education reforms circles?”—Richard Kahlenberg

One of the most interesting and thoughtful commentators on education issues is Richard Kahlenberg, author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. With recent attacks against teachers and discussions surrounding education “reform,” his correctives regarding unions and school performance are increasingly important.

He was recently a participant in a New York Times Room for Debate discussion which asked the question Why Blame Teachers? (see quote above.) Kahlenberg writes about how the development of the teacher’s union has unfairly led to the demonization of teachers:

As teacher power grew, unions sometimes overreached, by protecting incompetent members and fighting efforts to pay excellent teachers more. The American Federation of Teachers, led by Shanker, and today by Randi Weingarten, responded by supporting innovative ways of weeding out bad teachers, through peer review, and fair methods of rewarding excellent ones.

Nevertheless, a new brand of self-styled education reformers, many of them Democrats, has vilified teachers and their unions, suggesting that they only care about themselves, not the students they teach every day. Even President Obama favored the firing of every single unionized teacher in Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School. Union officials say they feel like Obama’s Sister Souljah.

Kahlenberg also reviewed a biography of Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. school chancellor who has become the darling of the national media, hedge-fund managers, and wealthy liberals. The review not only takes the author Richard Whitmire to task for glossing some of Rhee’s failures but also looks at the fallacies regarding education espoused by those who support education “reform.” Kahlenberg writes:

Most education researchers, though, recognize that Rhee’s simple vision of heroic teachers saving American education is a fantasy, and that her dramatic, often authoritarian, style is ill-suited for education. If the ability to fire bad teachers and pay great teachers more were the key missing ingredient in education reform, why haven’t charter schools, 88% of which are nonunionized and have that flexibility, lit the education world on fire? Why did the nation’s most comprehensive study of charter schools, conducted by Stanford University researchers and sponsored by pro-charter foundations, conclude that charters outperformed regular public schools only 17 percent of the time, and actually did significantly worse 37 percent of the time? Why don’t Southern states, which have weak teachers’ unions, or none at all, outperform other parts of the country? Rhee often noted that poor blacks in New York are two years ahead of poor blacks in Washington, which properly illustrates that demography is not destiny, but New York didn’t get ahead by firing bad teachers. Chancellor Joel Klein terminated only three teachers for incompetence between 2008 and 2010.

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