According to Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times, NJ governor Chris Christie’s take on school reform was met with a welcome reception at a recent Harvard Graduate School of Education event. Christie received his first ovation with this one-liner: “The only reason I’m engaging in this battle with the teachers’ union is because it’s the only fight worth having.”
Christie’s statement is not surprising. What stings is that such simplified logic apparently went unquestioned—and was even encouraged—by this audience of Harvard faculty and students.
Yes, teachers' unions need to change dramatically, adopting a stronger focus on teaching and learning. And yes, longstanding issues of performance pay, quality-blind transfers, and cumbersome processes for removing incompetent teachers must be resolved —now. Students and families deserve better.
But such issues (often linked in the public mind to unions) do not comprise “the only fight worth having” in public education. In fact, to focus on these problems is to ignore many, many other roadblocks to transforming the teaching profession for the benefit of all students:
1. Administrators who fail to cultivate the enormous leadership talent of hundreds of thousands of effective teachers. (Why not re-organize school schedules in ways that spread the expertise of our most effective teachers? This is truly one of the great lost opportunities in our schools.)
2. School board members who base critical decisions about curriculum on their own ideological interests, rather than on empirical evidence about what works for students.
3. State legislators who refuse to equitably finance high-need schools. (In so doing, they ensure that the most disadvantaged students have the least access to effective teachers and optimal conditions for teaching and learning.)
4. Policymakers who insist on perpetuating either-or debates at the expense of real change. (A juicy sound bite does little to help a struggling student or a first-year teacher. Real change will demand that we transcend either-or politics and look instead at how to structure schools around what works for students.)
The “only fight worth having” is the fight for better schools for all our children. And that fight cannot be an A versus B match. (“In one corner, The Governor! In the other, The Union!”) It must instead be an ongoing campaign challenging stakeholders at all levels to work together to create the schools (and teaching profession) our students deserve.
Now, there’s a fight worth winning.