I just finished watching the education documentary Waiting for Superman for the first time.
It does a pretty good job at describing some of the challenges facing our education system, and the filmmakers should be applauded for having the guts to actually offer concrete suggestions for fixing it. The filmmakers highlight the successes of programs like KIPP Academy and Geoffrey Canada’s charter school in Harlem. “We know what works,” the movie declares: longer school hours, high expectations, and the freedom from union rules that protect bad teachers.
What seems beyond dispute is that longer school hours and high expectations work for a lot of families. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that’s what works for all families—for example I don’t see Bill Gates, who’s featured in the movie, devoting any resources towards getting a KIPP school in Seattle so his kids can attend—or fantasize that there is one right way to do school.
In addition, it seems clear that schools should be free from union rules that protect bad teachers. But if you’re going to get rid of the bad ones, you should have a plan for how to attract good ones to replace them.
I had lunch yesterday with a former student, who gave me the inside scoop on what’s been happening at our old school. Apparently, the principal has been successful is moving out a few unpopular teachers. At the same time, a brilliant genetics teacher and an inspiring computer science teacher have moved on voluntarily. The’re headed for PhD programs or the private sector, someplace where they can do high quality work in an environment that treats them with dignity.
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I attended a Seth Godin lecture in Seattle a couple weeks ago, and someone in the audience asked him about the future of unions. He suggested that the future belonged not to unions, but to guilds. In Hollywood, for example, there are various guilds for the behind-the-camera work that require its members to be really, really good. That’s why the production value of Hollywood movies is so high. If you want to make a great movie, you need to hire a cinematographer that’s a member of the guild, because she’s going to be among the very best.
Godin says the error made by the United Auto Workers in the 1980s was not that they didn’t fight hard enough for the right protections, but they fought for the wrong things. He said, “They should have gone on strike and said, ‘We’re not coming back to work until you design better cars.’”
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Teachers unions are at a similar crossroads. Instead of fighting for continued protections, they should be fighting for the right to do high quality work.
Imagine if, at the end of the next collective bargaining, the teachers went on strike and said, “We’re not coming back to work unless you eliminate grades, stop forcing students to take required classes that they’re not interested in, and give us the freedom to teach material that makes our hearts sing.”