Opinion Brief

Steven Brill's Class Warfare: Are teachers unions the enemy?

In his new book, the Court TV founder argues that teachers unions cause dismal grades and block much-needed reforms

In his buzzy new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, Steven Brill — founder of Court TV and The American Lawyer — argues that teachers unions are the main cause of our failing public schools because they value teachers more than students. Without self-interested unions, Brill argues, a system where educators are judged on their effectiveness in improving student performance can "overcome student indifference, parental disengagement and poverty." Is he right?

Unions aren't the problem: Sure, teachers unions act in the best interest of their members, says Deborah W. Meier at Reuters. But "their collective self-interests often overlap with what's good for students." I can't say the same for education reformers who somewhat puzzlingly claim "that most low-income kids need constant carrots and sticks, tasks that are broken down into teachable and testable bits, and a testing system that rests on just bubbling in 'right' answers." Rather than blaming teachers, we ought to confront the fact that the U.S. has the highest rate of child poverty of any industrialized nation. That's the real problem.
"If only the unions were the problem"

It's time for teachers to be held accountable: Teachers' unions may claim to have the best interests of students in mind, but "the over-the-top lawsuits they have filed to block reforms" and their support of anti-reform political candidates would suggest otherwise, says Brill at Reuters. The union arguments against school testing and teacher accountability are "completely, undeniably insane." It's time we stopped ignoring the obvious and tossed out "a system in which we allow unaccountable, unmeasured civil servants to produce failure."
"The school reform deniers"

This tough-on-teachers argument is flawed: "Brill wants us to believe that unions are the primary — even sole — cause of failing public schools," says Sara Mosle in The New York Times. "But hard evidence for this is scarce." A number of the country's worst schools are in areas with weak unions that have little or no collective bargaining. Plus, charter schools — which are trumpeted by Brill-style reformers and typically aren't hogtied by union rules — aren't exactly shining successes. "A small percentage are undeniably superb. But most are not."
"Steve Brill's report card on school reform"

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