A recent article in the New York Daily News by Marcus Winters, from the Manhattan Institute (a right-wing, pro-corporate think tank), sums up in a sentence the "appeal" of charter schools: "Freedom from the often preposterous restrictions imposed by ... collective bargaining agreements allows charters to focus on student learning."
What are those preposterous restrictions contained in the teachers' contracts? Are they the impediments to student learning?
What's needed, according to Winters, is the ability to force teachers to work longer hours and perform whatever tasks the administration asks, and finally, to fire them. (Actually, he mentions the ability to fire teachers first.)
Though I'd like to reject this out of hand (especially in light of what just happened in Rhode Island with the wholesale firing of the teachers in Central Falls High), this notion has some currency.
Let's talk about teachers' hours. The teachers I know work evenings and weekends, preparing lessons and grading student work. With the increase in standardized testing and data collection, I'm sure that has gone up.
At my kids' recent parent teacher conferences, each teacher had pages of printed out data, with separate numerical scores for their homework, class work, tests and projects. I thought about how much time it must have taken them to do all those calculations for the 75 or so children they each teach. Frankly, I was amazed that in addition to the detailed scoring, they were able to also offer insight into my children's thinking, progress and behavior.
I don't doubt that most schools could use more staff, but the solution isn't more hours for existing teachers.
What about making it easier to fire teachers? There are surely bad teachers, just as there are surely bad principals and administrators. But just how many teachers deserve to be fired? New York City's Department of Education has a special team with a million dollar budget and a staff of eight lawyers and eight others whose job is to help principals build cases against teachers. According to The New York Times (which admits that these are unsubstantiated figures), the DOE claims that there are 500 teachers it would like to fire for incompetence - out of 55,000. That's less than 1 percent of the total.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of New York's United Federation of Teachers, said teachers have "no desire to have incompetent or misbehaving colleagues but also insist that the discipline process be fair and objective." Not one of the teachers at the Rhode Island high school had received a negative performance review, and the superintendent and school board made no allegation of incompetence on the part of any individual teacher - nevertheless all were fired.
So what is the answer to the problems in the public schools?
While teacher training, support and development are very important, the biggest problem, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, is the de-funding of public education that has gone on since the 1970s.
More resources are the key. New York's Alliance for Quality Education, which battled to change the state's funding formula that has severely shortchanged urban school districts, commissioned many studies on the impact of funding, and proved something that was probably obvious to parents in poor communities - money matters.
Another NYC advocacy group, Class Size Matters, has focused on the proven success of smaller class sizes on "increasing learning and narrowing the achievement gap." And by the way, because the teachers have class size caps in their contract, they have led the fight against the overcrowding that is still endemic in the city.
And even Diane Ravitch, one of the architects of "No Child Left Behind," no longer argues that "charters, merit pay and accountability" are key to improving schools. Rather, she has concluded that "charter schools are proving to be no better on average than regular schools, [and] in many cities are bleeding resources from the public system."
Blaming the teachers' unions for the "failure" of the public education system is at best a red herring, at worst a cynical way to divide the stakeholders in the schools, teachers from parents and the community. Though the problems are complex and systemic, the solutions are simpler: we need a major increase in funding for public education, all aspects of it, including teacher training and support.