By Teresa Ghilarducci

Let’s say you’re advising a business with varying quality and you want to improve performance. Would you ridicule the workers publicly; cut their pay and benefits; say they are the sole cause of the problem, and that you want brighter younger replacements who will work overtime and weekends? No new CEO would adopt this as a strategy for success. Attacking your workforce is not an effective way to improve quality, produce a better product, and attract top talent—a bright young replacement would notice the disrespect.

So why do people think attacking teachers is a route to education reform?

This week’s Sunday New York Times Magazine’s cover story by Stephen Brill attacks teacher unions for ruining public education. Brill’s main belief is that good teachers are all that matters, and his main culprit is tenure protections, which he views as protecting incompetent teachers (although no tenure provision prevents firing incompetent teachers—it just requires proof). The story is based on the belief that nonunion charter schools are better, using the single example of one school in Harlem.

Of course, teacher quality matters. But charter schools are no panacea. They have been studied to death, and the vast bulk of the evidence, even for programs funded by the pro-charter Gates Foundation, provides no evidence that charter schools are better. Brill’s tendentious article, boosting the Obama Administration’s education reforms that embrace charter schools, simply ignores the ever-growing evidence that charters make no measurable difference for students.

For example, the Rand Corporation finds that “across locations, there is little evidence that charter schools are producing, on average, achievement impacts that differ substantially from those of traditional public schools.” 

An Upjohn Institute study found no improvement in Michigan student achievement in charter schools.

And a Stanford study found “17 percent provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” These are not positive reports for charter-school zealots.

If the dream of education reformers is simply to get rid of unions, it will turn into a nightmare. Bright young hard-working teachers can’t run on sheer energy for long. And research tells us that teacher effectiveness, whether in charter schools or regular unionized ones, grows steadily with each year of experience. Success for younger teachers almost always requires mentoring from experienced teachers.

And if the beef against unions is that their wages, pensions, and benefits cost money—a key issue in the Harlem example—I have news for the reformers: Cutting wages and benefits is not a way to attract high quality workers. Young teachers will get old and also want pensions and good wages, and if they don’t get them, many will go work somewhere else.

The Ford Foundation is bucking the fad to simply blame teachers by funding projects that contribute to sensible, comprehensive reform. Improve teacher quality, yes—but also extend learning time with longer school days and school years, as most everyone agrees extending the school day and year are key to improving academic outcomes. Other pillars of real reform include stronger accountability beyond standardized tests, and adequate and stable funding beyond the unfair and discriminatory property tax system.

So sure, let’s have high-quality teachers. The reformers’ fantasy that success will magically occur simply by changing the form of school organization to charters is belied by plenty of data. Those interested in real reform should figure out how to work with teachers, not belittle and attack them.