Date: Nov 26, 2012 6:39 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: School Reform Letter
From pressdemocrat.com, Thursday, November 22, 2012. See
Friday's Letters to the Editor
By Gary Ravani [President, Early Childhood/K-12 Council. California
Federation of Teachers]
EDITOR: Michael J. Petrilli ("What we learned about school reform,"
Monday - given below this letter) obviously misunderstands what is
going on in education nationally. The real story is what the voters
learned about anti-teacher school "reform." Teachers went
door-to-door to do what teachers do best - that is, explain to voters
that the anti-teacher agendas were simply efforts funded by
billionaires to side-step paying their fair share in taxes and
harvest public funds for private coffers.
This paralleled what occurred here in the Proposition 30 and
Proposition 32 campaigns. Billionaires can outspend teachers, but
teachers can out-teach billionaires.
Petrilli mentions U.S. performance on international assessments where
our country scores in the middle of the pack. What he doesn't mention
is that U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of students living in
poverty score the best in the world. Even the schools with up to 25
percent of kids in poverty tie the best in the world.
And those countries, such as Finland and Singapore, that are the high
performers? They all have powerful teachers' unions. The same goes
for the highest achieving states in this country. It is the
lowest-achieving states, in the deep South, where teacher unions are
not allowed by law.
From Bloomberg, Thursday, November 15, 2012. See
What We Learned About School Reform in 2012
By Michael J. Petrilli
Teachers unions remain the Goliath to the school reformers' David,
even in red states. That was the lesson from votes last week in Idaho
and Indiana, where unions successfully took on or took out Republican
In Idaho, three laws associated with Tom Luna, the state
superintendent of public instruction, were repealed by referendum,
turning back the clock on efforts to phase out teacher tenure, to
link pay increases to performance and to expand online learning.
Luna's counterpart in Indiana, Tony Bennett, often called the darling
of the national education- reform movement, was fired from his job,
despite outspending his little-known, though union-backed, opponent
by 4-to-1. Bennett had been an aggressive advocate of vouchers and
charter schools, and had called for stronger state control of
In hindsight, the losses shouldn't have been surprising. Even when
reformers outspend their opponents, the unions easily out-organize
them. That comes down to simple arithmetic: With 3 million teachers
and several million more bus drivers, food- service workers, aides
and other staff, the public-education system is the largest employer
in the U.S. These folks vote, and they make their views known to
friends, family and neighbors, through traditional word of mouth and
social media. They've even been known to send word via the children
in their classrooms.
What lessons should school reformers take from the Indiana and Idaho
experiences? Should we adjust our policies? Our tone? Our political
The answer: All three.
First, it's time to stop angering suburban parents and teachers by
subjecting their schools to changes they don't want or need. It's not
that suburban schools are perfect -- their performance lags behind
that of our international competitors, too. But the policies required
for these schools to go from good to great are different from those
needed to get urban schools from dismal to decent. In nations with
the best schools, local leaders have the power to make day-to-day
decisions and aren't micromanaged from on high.
Top-down, one-size-fits-all efforts such as formulaic teacher
evaluations tend to overemphasize the high-stakes testing that can
take the joy out of learning. Parents and teachers in richer areas
typically hate this pressure.
Furthermore, reformers can't put together winning political
coalitions if they lose the suburbs. (Had Bennett limited his efforts
to fixing Indiana's inner-city schools, I bet that suburban
Republican voters wouldn't have turned against him. In fact, several
change-minded candidates won highly contested school-board seats in
Indianapolis, demonstrating a strong desire for urban reform.) When
it comes to middle-class schools, reformers should follow the
doctors' dictum: First, do no harm.
Second, we must renew efforts to show respect for teachers. This can
be complicated: Many schools face a teacher-quality crisis after
years of low professional-entry standards and lax accountability. At
the same time, most teachers are dedicated and hardworking. We need
to stress that bad teachers are rare but devastating and that efforts
to weed them out will lift the entire profession. Any rhetoric that
implies that most or even many teachers are incompetent or
uncommitted to children needs to be scrapped.
Finally, proponents have to get better at political organizing,
especially the ground game. The only way to defeat an army of
determined educators is with a larger army of equally determined
parents. The advocates of school vouchers and home- schooling have
learned this lesson and can bring busloads of supporters to the steps
of state capitols on remarkably short notice.
That has been critical to the success of school choice in Florida,
for example, where 5,000 people, including low-income parents, turned
out for a 2010 march in Tallahassee. The broader movement needs to
head toward identifying parent activists and engaging them in the
fight. That will also protect the coalition from charges of engaging
in "AstroTurf organizing" financed by private-sector money. Reformers
have to keep it real.
No young movement in any field can win every battle all the time.
Setbacks are inevitable. Victory over the long run can be achieved
only if we learn the right lessons from defeat. By aiming our efforts
at the schools with the gravest problems, changing our tone and
improving our organizing tactics, we can keep moving in the right
direction. The fight to guarantee all children a decent education
(Michael J. Petrilli is research fellow at the Hoover Institution,
executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and
author of "The Diverse Schools Dilemma." The opinions expressed are
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Nous Vous
To contact the writer of this article: Michael Petrilli at
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244