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Walking in Teachers' Shoes

It's to Steven Brill's credit that near the conclusion of his new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools (Simon & Schuster 2011) he reluctantly acknowledges that without the support of teachers unions systematic reform is impossible. I think what happened is Brill began to realize as he delved deeper into the subject that reform is far harder than he initially thought. As a result, teachers need unions to represent them as demands for results escalate. In fact, if unions were to disappear tomorrow, school outcomes would not significantly change for the better.

Nevertheless, we are incessantly confronted with claims made by theoreticians about the causes of the undeniable failures of so many schools and what needs to be done to turn them around. I've long believed that a prerequisite for publication of such essays should be classroom teaching experience. The argument made against my proposal is that one can be an effective coach in sports without having first been an effective player. There is some truth to that claim. But we are not talking about a handful of coaches but about 3.2 million teachers in 98,000 public schools with a population of 48.2 million students.

What might change the minds of public school reformers? I wish they would consider the following realities:

First, public schools have to enroll virtually all who show up at the schoolhouse door, regardless of motivation, interest or ability. This has always been the case, but never before have there been such high-stakes consequences. Sentimentalists like to refer to the Golden Age of teaching. But it never existed. When confronted with similar poverty and multicultural factors, public schools in the past were hardly paragons. In World Of Our Fathers (Simon & Schuster 1976), Irving Howe focused on schools in New York City, the principal port of entry for thousands of immigrants at the turn of the last century. His conclusion was that "the New York school system did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help." This is far from an enthusiastic endorsement.

Second, childhood poverty affects learning in ways that lay people cannot possibly grasp. Once again, this has always been true, but the difference is that the rate of childhood poverty - nearly 22 percent - is the highest in two decades. Some will maintain that it's hard to become outraged by a condition that's been present for millenniums. But this view begs the question because whether a condition is as old as the hills doesn't mean it should be minimized. Teachers are not miracle workers. They can do only so much to overcome the deficits that poor children bring to class through no fault of their own.

Third, inspired teaching doesn't happen unless teachers care deeply about their students. When teachers are unable to post the results they want despite their best efforts, they feel personally responsible. As the number of students entering public schools from chaotic backgrounds increases, the rate of failure takes a toll on their personal lives. For example, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera cites the example of Jessica Reid, a talented young teacher at the Harlem Success Academy who suddenly quit because the demands of the job were affecting her marriage ("Teaching With the Enemy," Nov. 7). I wonder how many other teachers fall into that category.

Finally, teachers unions are not the enemy. Although demonizing them is undoubtedly cathartic, it is ultimately counterproductive. Just as Randi Weingarten has taken a more conciliatory position, so too do corporate reformers need to rethink their reflexive antagonism. Maybe if more of them were to follow Atticus Finch's advice in To Kill A Mockingbird to stand in another person's shoes and walk around in them, they'd understand why unions are necessary partners who exist for good reason.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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