Letter to NYT Magazine

Steven Brill’s “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand” (May 23) presents a deeply misleading account of the current struggles over education policy, one that implicitly accepts three inaccurate – and politically potent – ways of framing the discussion.  First, the term “student achievement” is used to mean little more than scores on fill-in-the-bubble tests despite serious questions about the validity and value of those tests.  If policy makers rarely understand the difference between meaningful learning and high standardized test scores, it’s partly due to writers who chronically conflate the two.

Second, Brill has accepted the claim that a top-down, corporate-styled, test-driven approach to changing education is not only beneficial but synonymous with the very idea of “reform.”  One might question whether merit pay (mostly based on test results), more charter schools (which often siphon public funds to for-profit companies), and less job security for teachers deserves to be called reform at all.  But it is indisputable that many other ways have been proposed to reform education – something that a reader would never realize given that these politicians and corporate executives are presented as “the school reform movement.”

Finally, we’re led to believe that these brave “reformers” are struggling against a single, but diabolically powerful, impediment:  teachers’ unions.  Given that the union leadership appears to be faithfully representing the interests of its membership, it seems reasonable to conclude that this reactionary “reform” model is actually opposed by most of the people teaching our children; it’s just more expedient for politicians to frame their battle as being against the unions.  In any case, all those teachers are joined in their opposition by many – probably most — education researchers, activists, and others whose expertise lies in helping children learn.  To that extent, the question on your cover, “Are teachers’ unions the enemy of reform?” has it exactly backward.  The real question is, “Are those who call themselves reformers the enemy of good teaching?”

                        — Alfie Kohn