I have been meaning, since the start of this blog, to craft a lengthy essay about school reform efforts, and the conflation of “hype” with “evidence”.  I’ll go into more detail in a post this weekend, but fortunately, the evangelical zealotry of educational reform — reaching its zenith in the forthcoming documentary “Waiting For Superman” — is starting to get a critical appraisal from some quarters.

Reform is, of course, needed.  But the current heroes of the reform movement — charter schools, Teach for America, and DC Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — have been, incidentally or, at least in Rhee’s case, by their own design, lumped into a unified narrative in which they are positive agents of change standing tall against the entrenched power that is depriving American children of the education they deserve.  It’s not segregation (which studies show correlates highly with low performance, and is at its highest level since the desegregation decision of Brown v. Board of Education).  It’s not the highly localized system of educational funding allocation, which leaves schools in poor areas struggling to pay for books while those in wealthy neighborhoods continue to pull ahead.  No, the new reform narrative goes: these things are all mere distractions from the big problem, the real problem.  The teachers’ unions.

Obviously, unions are imperfect creatures, and they should be willing to interrogate their own practices and eliminate damaging or unnecessary ones.  The New Yorker published a highly damaging story about New York City’s so-called “rubber rooms”, where teachers accused of serious infractions await verdicts whilst not teaching and yet still drawing full pay.  This is assuredly the most egregious example of an area that needs revision.  The unions certainly don’t have all the answers.

But here’s another story: a well-regarded teacher in a suburban school district gets diagnosed with leukemia.  She will need to take one year off for treatment and an additional year for recovery.  Her husband is self-employed and so her entire family relies on her health insurance.  Because she is a public school teacher, and a union member, there is paperwork and frustration but her entire course of chemotherapy and radiation is covered by her benefits.  After two years, the district finds another position for her; she teaches there for another fifteen years, winning awards for her teaching, sending students to top colleges. 

That happened to my mother, and as often as people rail against unions for protecting bad teachers we forget the corollary: they also protect the good ones.  There are very, very, very few companies in the private sector who would a) provide such comprehensive health benefits to employees and b) give them two years off in the event of a health crisis, offering them a new position upon their recovery.  I know more vastly more people who were forced to quit jobs because of health issues that lasted a couple months than employees treated well throughout two years of cancer.

Indeed, as this excellent review of the film from The American Prospect states, it’s stunning how often actual teachers are absent from the discussion about educational reform.  Most teachers may not be in lockstep with all of their union practices, but if unions were truly enfeebled and private-sector practices brought to bear on education, we would lose a lot of good teachers alongside the bad.  (I should also take this moment to point out how ridiculous it is to expect all teachers to be excellent.  Teaching is one of America’s largest professions.  Bad teachers should be flushed out, yes, but there will still be a lot of mediocrity amongst teacher corps, because that’s just what happens when you have millions of people doing something.  There are mediocre programmers, mediocre Army personnel, mediocre doctors and cops and lawyers, and somehow we are able to accept that fact without arguing for a fundamental restructuring of those professions.  We do not live in Lake Woebegone, and everyone can’t be above average.)

More tomorrow, on some of the (proven! time and again!) fallacious arguments underpinning some reformist plans.