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American students rank 15th in the world in reading literacy, 25th in math and 17th in science. Frustrated parents in urban areas have turned to charter schools led by young, idealistic teachers. Education reformers have found an ally in President Obama, whose “Race to the Top” program rewards states that measure teacher quality and tie salaries to student test scores. But the program has met resistance from teachers’ unions, who form the backbone of the Democratic Party. Veteran journalist Steven Brill, who investigated New York’s infamous “Rubber Rooms,” reports on the education reform movement and the great struggle it has set off within the Democratic Party.
- Steven Brill Journalist and author of "After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era," and "The Teamsters"
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from “Class Warfare” by Steven Bill. Copyright 2011 by Steven Brill. All rights reserved. Excerpted here by kind permission of Simon & Schuster:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama's Race to the Top initiative fueled a national education reform movement and also touched off an epic battle with the Democratic Party. Veteran journalist Steven Brill reports from the frontlines of reform and explains why superstar teachers alone cannot save our schools.
MS. DIANE REHMHis new book is titled "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools." Steven Brill joins me in the studio and, of course, we'll be taking your calls. We've already got a number of postings on Facebook and Twitter. If you'd like to join us by phone, call us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Good morning to you, Steven.
MR. STEVEN BRILLGood morning, it's great to be here.
REHMGood to have you here. If you could name one central factor that has affected our schools negatively today, what would you say?
BRILLI think that over the last three or four decades, the unions have succeeded too much. There was obviously a need for teachers' unions, just as there was a need for all unions, but especially for teachers' unions in the 1940s and '50s and '60s, when it was a mostly women's profession.
BRILLThey were exploited, discriminated against in horrible ways, but I think what the parents across the country are reacting to is that the pendulum, by the end of the last decade, had swung too far the other way. And what that really boils down to is that you have a profession of 3.2 million people. That's the number of K to 12 schoolteachers in the United States, which in fact is the largest single profession in the country. And other than retail sales clerks and, you know, people who work at McDonald's, it's actually the largest occupation in the country.
BRILLBut it has come to be an occupation where performance just doesn't count in that workplace. There really isn't any other workplace in the United States where how well you do, how energetic you are, how much you care, how professional you are doesn't count. Now, that is not to say that most teachers don't care, that's not to say that most teachers don't do a good job, but that workplace is poisoned by the fact that if you do a great job, you get the same pay, you're in the same situation, the same lack of discretion in terms of dealing with education bureaucrats as the teachers who don't do a good job.
REHMAnd you're saying that that is primarily due to the unions?
BRILLIt's due to union contracts and it's due to the other adults in this picture, who are the politicians who bargain with the unions, and in most cases, it was the Democratic Party happily accepting support of these crucially important unions. If you're running for mayor in most towns, most major cities in the United States, how you do in the Democratic primary is what counts. And the teachers' unions who contribute money and time and effort mostly to Democrats really can sway those results.
BRILLBut it doesn't mean, you know, that unions are bad, it means that they've really -- they got to have, you know, much too much of a good thing. And the best example I can think of, actually, is actually your own. If I remember your biography correctly, I think you started as a volunteer?
BRILLAnd then you were a producer.
BRILLAnd somebody decided that you were really good at what you do and very quickly, they promoted you, which was a good thing. Now, anyone going into most urban school systems today as a teacher with a union contract, the only thing they know is that it doesn't matter how energetic and creative they are. When they're young as a teacher, they're going to get paid the same thing and the following year and for the next 25 years, they're going to get paid only on the basis of how long they've been breathing.
BRILLThat juxtaposed against the challenges, and there are real challenges, no one can deny it, the challenges, you know, of so many children coming, you know, from broken homes, who are the victims of poverty, discrimination, juxtaposed against those challenges of having that workforce which doesn't have any performance measure has created a school system that, as you said at the top of the show, is not performing in any way the way we would expect a school system in the United States to perform.
BRILLWe always expected that our schools would put the American dream into those children's lives, not be obstacles to the American dream.
REHMSo what's the impact of the recent Wisconsin recall election and in terms of the unions?
BRILLWell, I think that illustrates, you know, the pendulum now swinging back too far the other way.
BRILLAs I explained in the book, you need the unions to be a part of this process of turning the failure of America's schools around. And simply, you know, eliminating the unions from the equation, as the Governor in Wisconsin has basically, you know, tried to do, doesn't solve anything. In fact, it's a step in the wrong direction. The idea is to have a constant political climate where you're pushing the unions to create schools that are good for the kids, not just good for the adults.
BRILLBut if you wipe out the unions, it's sort of the equivalent of, you know, marching into Iraq and getting rid of everybody who operates the infrastructure and then saying, okay, now what do we do now?
REHMYou've obviously got a play here on words in your title "Class Warfare." Why did you use those two words?
BRILLI'm terrible at titles for my books and when I came to that one, you know, my wife said, that's a really good title, so I just decided to shut up and go with it.
REHMWell, I do, though, wonder whether you're talking about class in terms of classroom or class in terms of the amount of interest, money, education that goes into...
BRILLIt's both. I mean, to be serious about it, it's both. And again, I consider -- I got drawn to the story because I consider the state of our public schools to be the most urgent long-term national security issue, national economic security issue. We're trying to be globally competitive. You can't be globally competitive if you just assume that schools are going to continue to fail. We have to turn our schools around and we have to put the American dream back into American schools.
REHMHow much did President Bush's policy of No Child Left Behind help or hurt the fundamentals of education?
BRILLWell, I have to say that as a core issue, as a core policy and issue, I think it helped because it did one thing. It started the process of making schools and the people who work in them, making them accountable for their performance. Now, it's a little bit of a sledge hammer approach just worrying about how kids do on certain tests and then, you know, setting the standard so unrealistically high that, you know, if we keep going with just the law the way it is, just about every public school in America is going to be declared a failure.
BRILLBut the core policy initiative of saying, you know what? We give out a ton of federal money to schools and we ought to know how those schools are doing. What results they were producing for the children was the right instinct and the right approach.
REHMYet at the same time, we heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan say the other day, there is no silver bullet, no magic bullet to cure our education system.
BRILLWell, that's really the sad thing. It's sort of the conclusion I come to at the end of the book is, you know, I've spent a lot of time in some of the really high performing charter schools and a lot of time in some of the really badly performing public schools and the contrasts are obvious, but the problem is that, you know, the charter schools are staffed by, you know, these best and brightest, you know, highly energetic, young teachers.
BRILLWho are non-union, most of them, who kill themselves for two or three or four years and then they start to burn out. And you can't take 3.2 million people -- again, that's the number of teachers in our public schools, you can't expect that 3.2 million people are going to be working, you know, 10 or 12 hours a day are going to, you know, just kill themselves, have no family lives to speak of and be the best and brightest.
BRILLYou have to figure out a way to fix the system so that the not extraordinary teachers, the dedicated, intelligent, but not superstar teachers can be helped to perform better, encouraged to perform better and frankly, if they can't perform better, be encouraged to go and pursue another line of work.
REHMOf course, there are an awful lot of people who worry that the creation and support of the charter school system has been an undermining of the public school system.
BRILLWell, that -- that bespeaks, with all respect, a basic misunderstanding. Charter schools are public schools.
BRILLThey get paid with taxpayer dollars. They actually get less taxpayer dollars per student in most places than the public school that can be in the same building next to them, but they are public schools. They are -- you know they're under the supervision of the local school authorities who give them a charter, which is where you get the name, but they don't undermine public schools.
BRILLThey're public schools, but what they do do is they provide competition. And in New York, for example, when they started to co-locate a charter school within a building with a public school it created, as you know from reading the book, this really terrific contrast where in the same building, with the same children, from the same community you have on one side of the building these children performing the way, you know, kids do in Scarsdale, which is a wealthy suburb of New York, perform and on the other side, they're performing, unfortunately, the way that the stereotype of children in Harlem has led us to believe they should perform.
REHMSteven Brill, we're talking about America's schools. His new book is titled "Class Warfare." I look forward to your comments.
REHMWelcome back. Steven Brill is with me, he's written a new book all about the fight to fix America's schools. It's titled "Class Warfare." We are going to open the phones, take your e-mail and Facebook and tweets in just a few moments. But I want to ask you about the piece you wrote for the New Yorker back in 2009 titled "The Rubber Room." Tell me about that piece and how it got you to this book.
BRILLExactly. Well, I was looking to get back into magazine journalism and I'd heard about this story of how when teachers -- I'd never written anything about education in my life except for an article I wrote a lot of years ago about the educational testing service, actually, when I was still a law student.
BRILLAnd I'd heard about these rooms calls the rubber rooms where because New York City really can't fire teachers, even the worst acting teachers, because of the tenure system, that's in the union contract and in the state law, teachers accused of really serious incompetence or misconduct were taken out of the classrooms, but were put in these rooms where they had to report every day to do nothing and they just did nothing. And they would have an arbitration hearing, but the union contract said the hearing could only happen two days a month.
BRILLAnd I followed a bunch of these cases and basically, these cases lasted longer than the O.J. Simpson trial and they were about, you know, whether a teacher was incompetent. And, you know, some of the defenses were just ridiculous. There was hours of testimony in the hearings about whether a teacher had had custody of her teacher's manual, right. And that was about -- if she didn't have custody of her teacher's manual, how would she have known that she was supposed to grade papers, issue report cards, have lesson plans, et cetera.
BRILLSo the whole thing was just bizarre, but it was really, I decided, the tip of the iceberg because it wasn't just those relatively few teachers. It was -- that was sort of the emblem of a system of total lack of accountability and we had just gone too far.
BRILLAnd the other thing sort of -- that you have to juxtapose against that is that in the 1950s and '60s, the public education system in the United States enjoyed a great benefit and that was called discrimination against women. If you were a woman with a college degree in 1950 or 1960, basically, teaching was the only place you could go. As more opportunities opened up in the '70s and '80s to women, you know, the kinds of women who were my school teachers in elementary school growing up in New York, they were lawyers, they were doctors, they were bankers, they were lots of other things if they wanted to be.
BRILLAnd the data is that the people in the 1990s who were becoming teachers were people who were more interested not -- you know, this is an overgeneralization, but a large percentage of them were more interested in job security. And, you know, you have to think to yourself, if you're really sort of a go-getter and you're ambitious and you want to really do something to change the world, would you be really excited about a job where your performance doesn't count? You can't get fired, you get the same salary as everybody else who starts the year you do. If there are layoffs, they do layoffs on the basis of how junior you are.
BRILLThe -- in New York City, for example, the principal isn't even allowed under the union contract to comment on the format of your lesson plan. So there're all these crazy rules written into the contracts that just grew up and the rubber room was sort of the epitome of all that.
REHMAnd, of course, created a great deal of controversy.
BRILLYeah. So what they did, and as I report in the book, is the embarrassment, largely over that article in The New Yorker, the union and Mayor Bloomberg agreed to close the rubber rooms. But as I report in the article, those same teachers have now just put on a -- most of them have now just been put on a different list where they're still on the payroll and they're still not teaching.
REHMSo looking back, was it important to form those unions...
REHM...to begin with?
BRILLVery important and it's important to keep them. And I think the unions can become a force for the new professionalization of education. I think they can -- they provide so the organizational structure by which the management can, you know, negotiate real change. You know, you have something like 80,000 teachers in New York. You need a way to, you know, deliver real training to those teachers, to deliver real peer review. You know, it's not just about, you know, how the kids do on a test or how much they advance on a test. Real accountability takes those tests into account, but takes into account as much or more, you know, what their peers say about them.
BRILLYou know, as I went through New York's schools when I was doing the book, I could go to any fourth grade teacher and say, who's the best teacher in your third grade, who's the worst teacher in your third grade? And they could tell me in a flash because they were getting the results of the best and the worst teachers.
REHMSo what would you change about the function of the unions?
BRILLI think they have to have much less authority over the supervision of a principal. I mean, one of the things that the school reformers did early on was they were able to make principals accountable for their schools, but if a principal can't make the teachers accountable to the principal, that's a problem. In fact, in New York until a few years ago, the principal had no role in hiring the teachers. Any teacher, based on seniority, could pick the school they wanted to work in and the principal just had to accept them.
BRILLNow, one of the ironies of that is that the really sort of, you know, star high schools in New York like, you know, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant, places like that often got the worst teachers because they got the most, you know, senior teachers who wanted to be in classrooms, you know, where the kids could basically teach themselves. Those aren't -- so what you want to have is a system where those in charge of the school system can deploy teachers based on where they're needed the most, not based on how long they'd been breathing.
REHMYou write in the book about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville case.
REHMWhat was that, why was it so important?
BRILLThat was one of the examples or turning points where the union proved its value in a really contentious way that split the races in New York. You know, the union was mostly white and Jewish. The community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville was mostly African-American. And one of the early school reforms was sort of like moving deck chairs on the Titanic. They would say, rather than have a central school system, let's decentralize the school system so the parents and the community, for example, of Ocean Hill-Brownsville will have control of their school system.
BRILLWell, that control was basically co-opted by the more militant members of the African-American community who decided that one of the ways they wanted to have control or at least exercise their control was by weeding out the white teachers. And that was -- you know, that's not a good thing and if you're a union leader as Albert Shanker was, it's a terrible thing. So there was a strike, a prolonged strike. This is when John Lindsay was mayor of New York and it was a prolonged and bitter strike. Out of that strike, what the teachers' unions learned was they had to get and keep significant political power.
BRILLAnd out of that strike there was a compromise where the New York system, as with other big systems, was decentralized, but the politicians were sort of taken out of it. And into that vacuum of power, the teachers' unions were able to step in and exert much more control over the school system than they ever had before.
REHMHere's an interesting posting from our website. "As a 62-year-old black grandmother in Cleveland, I think the education reformers mean us no good. They used us to get around Separation of Church and State because too many religious schools were floundering. Now, here in Ohio, they're continually destroying our schools. They vilified our teachers with lies, they've shut down over 60 schools on the predominantly black eastside.
REHMMy nine-year-old grandson goes to the fourth grade. Last year, he did accelerated fourth grade class work in the third grade and aced his classes. This year, his class will have 60 plus children in one class. Now, I know Republicans want our children back into separate and unequal. I am so angry that no other black leader sees this."
BRILLWell, a couple of responses. First, I'm not intimately familiar with the situation in Ohio, but I am familiar enough with it to know that Ohio is one of the states that has done a poor job in supervising the charter schools, so it is an overgeneralization in the extreme to say that charter schools are the answer or that they're all good. There are a lot of really terrible ones and in states where they're not really carefully supervised, you have, you know, all kinds of issues around how the money is spent, are there religious biases and everything else. So I have no reason to doubt anything that the person who made that post says.
BRILLThe only thing I will say is that it's not the Republicans now who are leading the reform movement. Barack Obama's not a Republican, Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, is not a Republican. There are dozens of examples. In New York, the reform movement has really started to spring from minority members of the state senate and the assembly who put a reform law in New York over the top.
BRILLSo it's a much more mixed situation, you know, than just a bunch of Republicans, you know, trying to go after unions. And there are many very sincere people in the Civil Rights community, Barack Obama being one of them, who consider this to be the Civil Rights issue of our time, fixing the schools.
REHMWhat about Teach for America? To what extent has that program helped to inspire young people into the teaching profession? To what extent has it inspired students by the enthusiasm of those young people?
BRILLI think the answer to both those is to a large extent, but the overriding legacy of Teach for America is that it made it -- it has made it sort of cool, you know, for high achieving kids coming out of college to go into teaching, albeit, you know, only for a two-year commitment. But what has happened to an incredible percentage of them is they stayed in the field. They got so inspired by it that they continued to be teaching, they became, you know, supervisors, as the woman who's a lead character in this book became.
BRILLYou know, she started a Teach for America. They became legislators who got very much involved in education reform. Even if they went into business, their philanthropic activities revolved around education reform. And they are largely responsible -- the alumni of Teach for America are largely responsible for the revolution that I write about in this book.
REHMSteve Brill and the book is titled "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jessica Reid is the woman you're talking about. Tell us about her and how she epitomizes the reform movement.
BRILLShe epitomizes the reform movement and epitomizes the challenge, as my punch line will explain in a second. She's someone who I met while, you know, doing my reporting at one of the charter schools. And she has a magnetic way with kids. She's just a natural. But I don't mean that she's a natural because, you know, she's charismatic, although she is, but she really works at it.
BRILLI mean, she -- you know, 10, 11, 12 hours a day she is as worried about, you know, did I make eye contact just then to, you know, the small things like that, you know, to the big things such as, you know, how are we doing this week in math? How do I make sure that they actually got the lesson today? So she quickly becomes a supervisor at the charter school network in Harlem where she's working...
BRILLYeah, gets promoted.
BRILLAnd it turns out she's really good at that, too, but she's working the same 10, 11, 12-hour days. She's dissatisfied with one of her new recruits, counsels that person out of the school, something which wouldn't happen in a public school quite like that. You know, this is in, you know, her first two months of teaching. She says, this isn't going to work out and then takes over the class herself, even while she's supervising everybody else. So that's all good, that's great. But in the course of all these conversations I'm having with her over a period of like 18 months, she would always say things like, oh, I'm exhausted.
REHMShe's going to get burned out like that.
BRILLYeah, you know, she'd say things like, you know, I used to teach -- you know, I was a personal trainer as a way of working my way through college and I love to go to the gym. And, gee, I just can't get to the gym anymore.
REHMCan't do that anymore.
BRILLYou know, my husband says I only talk about my work. And she would just let stuff like that drop, you know, whenever I saw her. Finally, one day near the end of the book and near the end of my reporting in January, over a weekend, she just quits.
BRILLAnd that tells you a couple things and it really drives home the fact that you can't imagine how she could've done this for 10 or 15 years. And we need that kind of sustainability. And what that means is, what I -- the point I try to make toward the end of the book is that this is really a marathon, not a sprint and there's a different way you have to build up a system and build up your people for a marathon as opposed to sprinting. Now, that doesn't take anything away from the charter schools.
BRILLThe analogy that I use is that, you know, if you have an emergency room with great doctors who save lives, that's wonderful. They ought to be celebrated. You know, that's fantastic, you shouldn't knock them, but having a great emergency room is no substitute for fixing the healthcare system.
REHMNow, what if Jessica Reid had had the kind of leave opportunity that colleges offer, sabbaticals?
BRILLWell, she'd only been there for two years, but yes, that would be a good thing. If she had a little bit of a governor on sort of the work rules, if someone had said, you know -- and this is where the union could come in, you know, okay, we're not -- you know, we're no longer going to insist that you don't have to take a parent's phone call at home. Which, you know, the union contract says you don't have to do that. You know, Jessica would be on the phone all the time at home and on weekends with parents. How's a parent supposed to call you during the day? You're in class.
BRILLSo yes, you should be taking phone calls, but, you know what? After 10 o'clock at night, you don't have to do it. You know what? You get two weeks off of that every...
BRILLThere are ways to sort of let people -- as the metaphor I use in the book says, you know, let people sit down once in a while because you can't sprint through a marathon.
REHMSteven Brill and the book is titled "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight for -- to Fix America's Schools." And we'll take a short break here. We have callers on the line from Detroit, Durham, Alexandria, San Antonio, Cleveland, St. Louis. We'll get to all of you in just a moment.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones for Steven Brill on his book about what's happening in America's schools. His book is titled "Class Warfare." First to Detroit, Mich. Good morning, Clay.
CLAYHi, how are you this morning?
REHMFine, thank you.
CLAYThank you for taking my call.
CLAYI -- I'd like to make a comment on what I see as a fundamental flaw in the author's argument. The argument being that teachers -- good teachers aren't motivated to do well because their underperforming colleagues are getting paid the same as they are. I think the problem with the underlying assumption is that teachers are motivated by how much they get paid.
CLAYI think instead, rather than pay, teachers are in fact motivated by teaching, by helping students and by -- by seeing the difference in the lives of the kids that they teach. And that alone is motivation for those teachers, not how much they get paid.
BRILLWell, I guess I have two responses to that. The first is I certainly agree with you, people don't go into teaching for the money. However, there are -- there's a certain quadrant of teachers who it's clear may have gone into it for the job security. You know, when I was walking around the building that I spent a lot of time in and I saw a teacher sitting with his feet back, you know, yelling at a bunch of third graders, you know, how many days in a week? How many days in a week?
BRILLThat wasn't a teacher. And the principal knew about that teacher, the principal knew she could do nothing to make that teacher teach better and that teacher knew that he had job security, so that would be my first point. My second point would be that if teachers are all now totally properly motivated, why don't we have more of the higher achieving college students going into the profession?
BRILLThe answer is, if you're coming out of college today and you can look around and say, well, I could be, you know, a lawyer and make, you know, 60 or 80 or $100,000 a year, but if I'm a teacher, I start at, you know, $30,000 a year, it's not that their motivated by money, but there is a level which, you know, everybody starts to pay attention to that.
BRILLThe third point would be that I wasn't talking about simply rewarding teachers with money for their performance. There are union contracts that don't let you give teachers awards, recognize them for their performance. There are union contracts that don't let you promote teachers to be mentors or to be assistant principals based on their performance, so there can be a lot of ways to reward people for performance, money is one of them.
BRILLBut I do think that if you just step back again just to look at sort of the big picture and -- which is what I tried to do, it is the only -- the only occupation in this country and it happens to be the most important and the largest occupation -- it's the only one where performance is just not taken into account at all.
REHMThanks for your call, Clay. Here's an e-mail from Jimmy. He says, "Why don't these experts ever lay any of the blame on parents? The disinterested parents are what make teachers burn out. Teachers cannot compete against a parent who will not take any interest in a child's education."
BRILLWell, I have two responses to that. First of all, the really high performing charter schools prove that you can overcome disinterested parents or even worse, you know, parents who are abusive. I mean, kids who are coming from abusive homes. You can overcome it, but notice I said overcome.
BRILLAnd that brings me to my second point which is, it's not that that's not an obstacle, it's not that that's not a factor, it's just that if the work of public employees who we taxpayers pay is to educate children, it's not enough for them to say, you know what? I can't do this because this kid comes from a bad home. That's just not satisfactory.
REHMBut I mean, isn't that putting a great deal of responsibility on that teacher?
BRILLYes. Which is why I think they should be paid more and why I think they should be recognized more, but it puts a ton -- a massive, ton of responsibility on teachers, which is why it shouldn't be a profession, with all that responsibility, where performance doesn't count.
REHMCourse there is, I gather, as you write about in the book, the data that identifies teacher quality as the single driver for student achievement.
BRILLIn the classroom. Now, if -- you know, if you have parents at home who are reading to you every night from, you know, the day you're two years old, that will be a huge driver, but the public education function, the thing that we spend, you know, $600 billion a year in this country, is to take kids from all homes, from all backgrounds and try to educate them and it's not enough to say, well, you know what? For a certain segment, we just can't do it.
REHMAll right. To Alexandria, Va. Good morning, Mary, you're on the air. Mary, are you there? Okay. To Chris in San Antonio, Texas, who is, I gather, a former charter school teacher. Go right ahead.
CHRISGood morning and thank you for taking my call.
CHRISI'd like to know if you can speak to a couple of issues in relations to charter school and I agree with what you're saying, you know, about the variety of charter schools and sort of the pendulum swings in the trends in education overall. I've been directly involved with many of the things that you're talking about in positive and negative ways. I'm interested in what you think about charter management companies and in some of the charter schools that are not performing well, what role they might play in interference with the administration and in not really considering teachers' feedback in policymaking.
CHRISAs well as the role of publishing companies in standardized testing and how those financial interests affect what happens in the schools.
BRILLThose are both very important factors. The - when you refer to charter management companies, you're referring to for-profit companies that come in and manage charter schools. Some have done it well, many have done it really badly and really basically fleeced the taxpayers. In fact, that was what I was referring to in part from the caller from Ohio.
BRILLSo it's a mixed bag, but I am generally more comfortable with the non-profit model of charter management, but the most important factor is having a governmental structures they have in New York that really is supervising the charters, holding them accountable. What a charter is, it's basically saying, here's our plan for these children. Within two years or three years, they will be achieving X, we'll have these many people enrolled, this is the money we're going to spend, we're going to have this, we're going to have that.
BRILLAnd the really good managers of that process go in and hold them to that, which, by the way, no one holds any of the public schools to, so they're much more accountable. Your second question was about the text book companies, the publishers. I didn't learn very much about that at all in doing this book, except that my reporters instinct is that in a situation where you have, you know, billions and billions of dollars of, you know, government money being spend without a lot of, you know, visibility and, you know, coverage in the press, there are probably a lot of good stories there.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Dawn who says, "I taught for 15 years and year after year, teachers were tenured, kept even though they did little actual teaching. I, on the other hand, was in school two hours early, brought work home, worked my butt off. I constantly tried to improve my teaching year after year, but down the hall, teachers sat in their rooms and at their desks and made the same money I did.
REHMLast year was my tipping point. I quit. I love teaching, I would've done it the rest of my life, but with little accountability, testing demanding and a $500 raise for a master's degree, I now work at my family's business."
BRILLWell, I think that's the kind of system failure I'm talking about. Those are the people you want to kill to keep in the profession. You want to motivate them, now, whether it's a bonus or whether it's a promotion with a lot more stature so that they become mentors and maybe they get an office, so whatever you can do and this is the same in any workplace.
BRILLI imagine, you know, there are two or three producers here. If one of them is really fabulous and is really ambitious, the job of this radio station is to figure out how to keep that person and how to encourage that person. And, you know, the work you do is really important, the work that that person who sent you that e-mail does is even more important.
REHMAbsolutely. Another from Roy, "How do we identify the best teachers and reward them while letting them continue to teach?"
BRILLWell, it goes back to something I said before. It's actually not hard at the high end and the low end. You could ask any principal, you could ask any teacher, you could ask most parents, you know, who are the five best teachers in this school...
BRILL...and who are the five worst and, you know, the list of five worst among, you know, everybody might have six or eight people on it, but, you know, no one from the best list is going to be on the worst list and no one from the worst list is going to be on the best list. It's in the middle that it gets difficult, very difficult, but that's where you have to have really strenuous, you know, peer reviews. The teachers' union contract in New York allows one official observation of the teacher a year. It's sort of a drive-by.
BRILLAnd invariably, in most of the major school systems in the country, those observations result in 92 or 98 percent of the teachers being judged as doing a satisfactory job and maybe, you know, 2 percent being judged as unsatisfactory. There's a great quote in the book from Michelle Rhee, who's, you know, over in the schools here in Washington.
BRILLWhere she says, when I got here, 98 or 99 percent of the teachers were satisfactory, but only 8 percent of the kids in one of the grades were -- knew how to read at their level. So all the kids were failing, but all the teachers were terrific. That's a -- that's a disconnect.
REHMIt is a disconnect and, of course, when Mayor Fenty was voted out, Michelle Rhee left here as well.
BRILLBut I think the work that she has been doing has largely been continued and that may be more of a lesson in how if you're going to confront, you know, a public workers' union, you know, Washington, D.C. might not be the best place to do it.
REHMBrian from Cleveland says, "We hear much about teachers not being well paid. Nobody gets in it for the money, but 10 years and a master's degree gets you about $60,000. Many non-profits need professional about -- need professionals about as much. It's hard to pay for performance when you have to teach to your district for whoever shows up."
BRILLWell, I -- again, I think, and I tried to spell it out in the book, how you if there's a way you could pay teachers starting salaries of 65,000 going up to 165,000 without spending a penny more of taxpayers' dollars.
BRILLAnd it involves rejiggering, you know, the contract, not paying people for being in the rubber rooms and stuff like that.
REHMSteven Brill, the book is titled "Class Warfare." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Matt, thanks for joining us.
MATTGood morning, Diane. Thanks for having me.
MATTI have several things going through my mind, but I just want to say, I totally support Mr. Brill's thinking on this and, you know, paying teachers more, I would be more than willing, even in the current economic times, to pay more tax dollars to see their base salaries increase. I wanted to just say a couple of things, maybe ask a question, but you know, in thinking about the increases in teacher pay and whatnot, I want to go back to one of the previous callers from Michigan and I think we are putting too much pressure already on our teachers because we're -- the pressure we're putting on them is that we ask them to do a very, very difficult job and be motivated primarily by their own (word?).
MATTI have friends who have thrown themselves, committed their lives to going into, you know, the worst intercity schools and, you know, trying to be that teacher who turns the lives of children around. And just like the e-mailer that you read from earlier, you know, the guy -- my friend just totally did exactly what he wanted to do. But after five years, he was so burdened by the stresses at work, but also the stresses in his family life because of the difficulty to pay bills and, you know, the stress that was putting on his marriage and whatnot that he had to quit.
MATTSo anyway, just another example. And I'd also say really briefly, I'm a physician and I kind of see the same thing going on with physicians currently that I think has happened and I think Mr. Brill is saying has happened with teachers. You know, as Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements continue to be cut, you know, it's -- in order to help us afford medical care or healthcare, this -- it's -- what it's doing is it's pushing people who are competent and who would make great physicians away from the medical field.
REHMAll right. Matt, thank for your call.
BRILLLet me -- let me just -- the caller is calling from Missouri and I'll give you another example of how you could pay teachers more by doing something with the contract. Missouri, the teachers' union lobbied the legislature in Missouri several years ago to include -- when figuring out a pension, the pension is basically half of your last year's salary. They put a little provision in some law that nobody noticed that said that the value of your health insurance will count as part of your salary.
BRILLSo with that little provision that nobody noticed, they upped the pensions and that cost -- if you got rid of that, you could probably pay each teacher in Missouri an extra 2 or $3,000 a year.
REHMInteresting. On that note, we'll have to end our conversation with Steven Brill. The book is titled "Class Warfare." Congratulations.
REHMThanks for being here.
BRILLIt was great being here.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.
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