A clash over teachers’ unions between Chris Christie and Democratic congressman George Miller generated most of the heat, but the light from a national town hall about education held last week in Washington was focused on the reforms that are necessary to improve the nation’s ailing school system. And on the need for reform there was basic agreement.
The panelists, who included Gov. Christie, Rep. Miller (D-Calif.), Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and deputy education secretary Tony Miller, all agreed on the need to nurture education by having the federal government set a broad outline for raising academic standards, something that many conservatives do not agree with but that Christie does, in part because of the federal government’s unique ability to view education from “20,000 feet.” The panelists also agreed that there is a need to improve teacher recruitment and increase literacy while enabling states to have flexibility to implement education reforms based upon local needs.
Panelists were also aligned that teacher pay must increase in impoverished school systems in an effort to improve teacher retention in these locations where experts say that impoverished students have only a 9 in 100 chance of graduating high school in the U.S. Average teacher salaries are often lower in impoverished areas because the high turnover tends to mean that those schools have a greater percentage of new teachers who earn less than their more experienced peers.
Sponsored by the makers of the Waiting for Superman documentary, the National Education Town Hall attracted over 120,000 views of the Facebook post linking to the event and included a live video stream to education groups in states like Massachusetts and Tennessee, organizers says.
Secretary Miller warned that new higher targets for educational standards are likely to cause “some states to miss the target,” because the quality of education differs markedly around the country. Among the Obama administration’s top priorities now, he said, is the reauthorization act for elementary and secondary education, also known as No Child Left Behind.
One area that the new bill will address is a new accountability for teacher, student and school failure. Right now if, for example, a sixth grader reading at a third-grade level improves to a fourth-grade level during the year, his teacher and school are still considered failures. The Secretary would like a new bill to recognize incremental achievements made even if a student remains below grade level.
In all there were two main points of contention that both occurred between Rep. Miller and Gov. Christie about the teacher’s union. Christie said, “The single most political force is the teachers’ union fighting [reform]. They are the people to blame for the lack of change.”
Miller replied: “That’s too simplistic.”
The second was when a question came to the panel via Twitter asking for advice for teachers who don’t “feel supported in advocating for more progressive schools.”
Miller responded that there are great models out there for teachers who want to be a part of stronger reforms, from charter schools to public-school choice, and in programs like Teach for America.
Christie’s response: “You are talking about an infinitesimal amount of the teaching opportunities in America. Its infinitesimal, Congressman, and you know it.”
Miller shot back: “To suggest [improving schools] can’t be done because of the unions is to cave into the argument that it can’t be done.”
Christie challenged the Congressman then saying: “You need to stand up and tell the truth . . . stand up and say, ‘Enough.’”
Geoffrey Canada agreed. “No one says ‘I want to be a teacher so that I can be in the teachers’ union.’ The structure of the teachers union is calcified,” he continued. “If we don’t fix this we won’t have the next generation of teachers.”
Sen. Bennet, a former schools superintendent, explained that even if teachers choose not to join the union, they still must pay substantially all of the dues, but then not be able to go to the meetings.
Gov. Christie asked the panelists “are we satisfied with the level of failure we have?” and answered his own question with an upbeat note saying “this is a unique moment. You have the president of the United States, Secretary of Education, a conservative governor of New Jersey, a Democratic member of the House, a Democratic member of the Senate all saying essentially the same thing. If we can’t take advantage of this moment, then we deserve what we get.”