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Special Report: Educating America

Aired February 26, 2011 - 09:30   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, HOST: Two years ago, Wall Street was public enemy number one. Today it's teachers? Depending on you who ask they're either glorified babysitters with loads of time off or they're the very key to America's competitiveness, underappreciated and underpaid.

This morning on YOUR BOTTOM LINE, we're educating America.

This is a story about unions and collective bargaining; this is also a story about how well we're educating our kids, but something happened this week. This story got personal.

Let's get started this morning with Bill Bennett, CNN political contributor and a former secretary of education in the Reagan administration.

Bill, there are three million teachers in America, you can't paint them all with the same brush, but one teacher this week tearfully told me her profession is under attack. What's going on?

BILL BENNETT, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think the profession's under attack, I think teacher unions are taking some hits and that's a different thing. I know many different teachers, thousands of teachers, I've been in a thousand schools and we have some great teachers in our system and they deserve recognition, reward, and I would say, greater pay. We also have a lot of teachers in the middle and we have about five to 10 percent of our teachers, frankly, who shouldn't be in the profession and if they weren't in the profession, the performance of our students would dramatically improve.

But I think the most important factor, Christine, has entered in lately, has been the budgets, the restraint of budgets, the serious situations in the states has forced an examination of teachers in union practices, that is collective bargaining, wages, salaries, working conditions. And the question arises, are they subject to the same kinds of constraints? Do they have to tighten the belt in the same way everybody else does in this tough economy?

ROMANS: And Bill, you talked about the teachers in the bottom five or 10 percent who shouldn't be in the classroom. I want to bring in someone who should be in the classroom and is definitely in the top one percent -- 2010 Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling.

Sarah, do you feel like teachers are taking the heat here or do you feel we're having an important conversation about doing more with less money?

SARAH BROWN WESSLING, 2010 NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR: Well, I certainly think that teachers are faced with the reality of this conversation and the reality is that this conversation does manifest itself in that in the classroom -- and teachers take this personally because they take their work personally, because their work is so often an extension of themselves and they see their work and their service, you know, as they see their students becoming self-actualized and participating in the democratic society -- so, most certainly teachers are taking this in a very personal way.

And I think that in terms of kind of this national conversation and the rhetoric that's going on, we aren't necessarily separating the issues from the teachers, instead, we are combining them in our conversations in a way that -- that points fingers and blames a lot of the problems on the teachers who, in essence, are functioning in a system that has been given to them.

ROMANS: I want to bring in Jessica Opoien. Jessie's a college newspaper editor who led a team from her school paper on a journo road trip this week to cover all this. They went to Madison, got in the car, went to Madison, took the cameras. We know Jessica because she's a former CNN intern, as well, so she was sort of on the ground for us.

Jessie, set the stage for us. I mean, I'm sure you talked to a lot of teachers and public workers, there. Did they feel this was though this was an important examination of how to fix our problems, did they feel it was a union story, or is this a teacher story or all of those things?

JESSICA OPOIEN, IOWA STATE DAILY: I think it is all of those things, you know, talking to people who were there, it wasn't so much about the benefits, it wasn't about the financial impact, it was about getting rid of collective bargaining and getting rid of the right to have a say in working conditions and classroom size and things like that. I mean, there are a lot students there, a lot of teachers who feel that education is under attack.

ROMANS: We're showing some of the pictures, Jessie, that you guys you took there. Give me a sense of some of the overarching themes. I mean, one of the things -- you know, it's Madison. Sometimes -- I mean, in some cases it felt a little bit like a slumber party, I'm sure, you know, a protest, a feel-good protest or feel-good rally, but tell me a little bit about what the tone was there about what people think that they can get done.

OPOIEN: Well, when we got there, it was Sunday night, and there were people sleeping in the capitol And it was kind of like a slumber party and it's a very peaceful feel. You know, there haven't been any arrests made. It's been kind of a community of protestors and people are showing respect for everyone, whether they agree with their opinion or not.

But that peace isn't really for lack of passion. I mean, the people who are there are very passionate, they're desperate, you know, trying to get their voices heard and they feel that they have no other way than to sleep in the capitol or to march around the capitol 24 hours a day.

ROMANS: Steve Perry, he's our CNN education contributor.

Steve, are unions good or bad for education?

DR. STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR: Unions are bad for education. One of the things that unions do is they create a win at all costs approach, so therefore what they do is they present the working conditions that they think best suit their employees, I mean their members, not that which is best for students.

We've yet to find unions supporting any form of reform that's being proposed. In fact, one of the things that I find no matter where I travel in the country is that some of America's top-performing principles and reformers are not in favor of many of the reforms, I mean, many of the efforts that the unions are putting forward.

They have created this situation in which when a person retires, they receive 80 percent of their salaries for the rest of their life at the best benefits package that there is available to any type of employee and that's where these costs are coming in.

There's no attack on education, there's a realization that whoa we've overspend and we can't cut the benefits to those people who have already gone forward and we can't continue to give guaranteed increases to individuals who are not performing. We have to begin to make some real tough decisions. As someone who is in a school, right now, who is under the responsibility of making sure that children go on to college from historically disadvantaged populations, I don't want to cut, but I understand that we have to make honest, hard decisions. That's not an attack, that's being big boys and girls and doing what's necessary.

ROMANS: You know, I want to bring Sarah, here because Sarah, you're obviously -- you must be a member of the union and for you, you have school administrators, you have your union representation, your classroom, your colleagues. There's a lot of different moving parts, here. What do you think? You say unions are there to represent and create better teachers, that's a fundamental purpose of your union.

WESSLING: Well, certainly. I think that there's a real facet of the unions that's a professional organization and there are movements within the union to support teachers who want to become better in their profession, who want to perfect their craft, who want to be in contact with other kinds of educators who are interested in innovation and reform and all of the things that -- that the rest of this country also wants for their students. And I think that it's unfair to say that unions or union members or teachers who belong to unions don't have those students at the forefront of their minds all the time because --

ROMANS: I'm going to let Steve jump in.

Steve, you're shaking your head, here. You just --

PERRY: The union is -- I'm in a union, because I'm in a collective bargaining state, I don't have a choice, I have to pay dues to an organization that I do not wish to belong to because of the collective bargaining agreement. Everyone who works in public education must belong to this organization who uses our dues to support candidates and efforts that we may not necessarily support.

The unions are, at their core, a political organization, no different than the NRA. They support politicians and causes that they feel keep their employees, what they say, working conditions in place. If you read the union's own Web sites, you'll find more conversation about politics than you will about education.

We can talk about we want organizations to be, what we want the unions to be, but the facts are what the facts are. What they fight for is to maintain individuals who have, they feel, been maligned by the system when we as principals try to remove somebody we don't think is doing their job.

ROMANS: All right, well let's keep it there, we have a whole lot to get to and we're going to handle each of these specific issues in the next 20 minutes or so. Jessie Opoien, editor in chief of the "Iowa State Daily," thank you so much for dropping by and for letting us show your great pictures and for all your great work.

Steve, Bill, Sarah, we're going to get specific. Last-in, first- out. The money is running out, should young teachers be fired first?


ROMANS: Last-in, first-out, that means when teacher jobs are cut, the most recent hires go first regardless of how effective they are in the classroom.

Steve, you said you're running a basketball team, you'd have a court full of old geezers and none of that young raw talent. You hate this.

PERRY: I do Because we can't have it both ways, folks. We can't say that teachers are skilled professionals who need to be judged on their capacity and then don't, then judge them on how old they are, how long they've been in the system. That's how we keep losing talent. I'm not suggesting that someone who is younger is more talented than someone who's older, but I should make that decision.

As the person who's responsible for the organization I need to be able to determine whether or not this teacher is the best teacher for our school, not based upon -- it's not just for first-in, last-out, they actually get down to something as random as your Social Security, meaning that if you have a zero versus a one, you are the lower one, so you are then removed. That's absurd. That's not how you pick teachers.

ROMANS: Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of the D.C. public schools, she's now heading up an organization called "Students First." This week she launched a campaign to save great teachers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MICHELLE RHEE, STUDENTS FIRST: The difference between how much a child learns in an ineffective teacher's classroom versus a highly effective teacher's classroom is about three times the amount of material. When you are laying off strictly by seniority and not quality, what that results in is the district laying off some of its most highly effective teachers.

You know, Bill, it seems logical, unless you're a 50-year-old teacher making 80 grand a year and your job gets more bang for the buck, if you're trying to balance a budget.

BENNETT: Yes, well, the evidence is overwhelming, what Michelle Rhee is talking about, what Steve's talking about. You look at the research, take a third grader in the 50th percentile, give him a poor teacher for three years, he's in the 80th or 90th percentile. Give him a poor teacher for three years, he's in the 15th or 20th percentile. Seems to me that's all you need to know.

A teacher isn't good because it's young, a teacher isn't bad because a teacher's old, but some young teachers are very, very good and we want to keep them in the classroom, we want to encourage them in the classroom. Some people who are old are very wise and very gifted. Some people who are old aren't very good, anymore. It happens in all professions, it happens in teaching. If we really mean merit and accountability and we want to improve the system, then we ought to reward it.

By the way, there needs to be more rewards and recognitions of people like Sarah. And the problem with the teachers union is that they give no more recognition to Sarah, no more pay to Sarah the Teacher of the Year, than they do to worst teacher in the system. That 's a broken system.

ROMANS: Let's listen to Michelle Rhee's math, here.


RHEE: When you do seniority-based layoffs is much, much more than what they would be if they were quality-based layoffs. In fact, the best estimates say that you could save about 30 percent of the jobs that are laid off, you could save those if you were doing them by quality instead of seniority.


ROMANS: I want to bring in Kate Walsh, she's the president for the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Kate, is the perception true that tenure is earned too easily and too quickly in education?

KATE WALSH, NATIONAL COUNCIL ON TEACHER QUALITY: It's absolutely true. In states across the country, the average time in which it takes to earn tenure is only two to three years. There's only a few states that go out to four or five years and it's amazing that it is such an automatic. It's amazing that it is such an automatic decision because it is -- it is effectively a school system saying we're prepared to invest $2 million in you over the life of your career. So, it's a very serious decision that's treated very lightly.

ROMANS: Bill, I know you want to jump in here.

BENNETT: Well, just the focus has been on teachers. Teachers are important, very important jobs, we should reward great teachers, but let's remember, it's about the students. The focus should be on who serves the students best. That's where the emphasis needs to be on education, not how teachers feel, whether they feel the governor likes them or not, but who can educate our kids, that's got to be the question.

ROMANS: And you know, there's a lot of other moving parts here, too. We're going to get to in the next few minutes. But a lot of moving parts like, for example, parents, administrators, the kinds of challenges that are going on at home and in the community and different conditions for different school districts and that is the honest to God's truth.

Bill, thanks for being with us. I really appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

BENNETT: Thank you. My pleasure

ROMANS: Steve, Kate, stay right where you are.

Up next, an elementary lesson in teacher economics. Where is all of this money going anyway? And how come there never seems to be enough?


ROMANS: I reported this week that President Obama wants to hire 10,000 highly qualified science and math teachers in the next year, 100,000 over the next decade.

Steve, Kate, Sarah, I want you to weigh in on this response we got from a high school math teacher who recently retired after 36 years. He said in light of the public vitriol against collective bargaining rights for teachers, he asks, "Do you actually believe that people proficient in math and science would ever think seriously about going into a classroom to instruct when they could easily pull down twice as much money for far less grief?"

Sarah, is this the environment to get good teachers in the classroom?

WESSLING: Well, I think, again, so much of our conversations seem to assume that the only thing that's going to get and retain good teachers in the classroom are monetary compensations. And I think what teachers really need is we need to continue to work to elevate the profession so that we get highly qualified, you know, scientists and mathematicians to be in the classroom because they feel supported there, they feel like they can grow as a professional there and they're making a difference there. ROMANS: You know, Steve, according to the government, elementary school teachers make about $50,000 a year. High school teachers they make a little bit more. But it's hard to compare with other professions because of time-off and benefits. And Sarah makes a very good point, if you're trying to encourage people from the private sector to come into education, aren't benefits, isn't time off, aren't those some of the things you use to encourage people to come?

PERRY: I don't know that that's the case. I know that one of the things -- well, one of the main things that she said that do I agree with is that, many people don't get into education because they're expected to make a ton of money. You get into it because you love it, you're called to do this, and that's what people want. They want to be able to work in an environment where they feel like they're going be able to make an impact, they're going to be on a winning team, a team of educators who are going to make big strides in young people's lives. That's what this is about. It's not about the money. I do think that we spend too much time talking about benefits and other monetary examples of how we inspire people to participate in education.

I know there are quite a few people who would leave their current professions to become teachers if they didn't think their job would be in jeopardy because they're the first one in.

ROMANS: I want to pose this to you, and I want to bring Kate in for this. Should each teacher be paid on the basis of the quality of his or her work should all teachers be paid on the standard scale basis?

Take a look at this survey. In 1983, 61 percent said that it should be on the basis of their work. By 2010, that had gone up to 71 percent. On a standard scale basis, last year only 27 percent of people thought that teacher should be paid on a standard scale. Kate, what do you think?

WALSH: Well, in theory we absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with the premise that teachers should earn based on the quality of their work, in practice, it's a lot more difficult to carry out, there's a lot of states struggling with exactly this question, a lot of districts, how do we begin to reward teachers for the work that they do. So, the problem is, when you base it only on test scores, that's a very imperfect, imprecise and not particularly fair measure by which to judge a teacher's effectiveness.

ROMANS: Steve Perry, our education contributor, thank you so much. Fantastic conversation. Kate Walsh on teacher quality, thank you. And Sarah Brown Wessling, Teacher of the Year. All of you, thanks a lot.

OK, s teacher and a corrections officer walk into a protest -- it's not a joke. If one doesn't do their job, the other one gets a new client.

Plus -- would you stand for 60 kids in your child's classroom?


ROMANS: Poppy Harlow and Deb Feyerick are here, they've been covering the story, all of us, all week, about education in this country. And Poppy's been doing some fascinating stuff about Detroit.

Well, you and I have both been there, talking about the education system crisis in Detroit. How would you feel, folks, about your kid being in a classroom with 60 children? That's something that could be a reality in Detroit.

POPPY HARLOW, CNNMONEY.COM: Yes it could and we were just talking before about sort of a lack of any real data that says it's a problem for kids. I worry about teacher's sanity, I think, 60 kids in a classroom. But that's what's happening.

And folks, the reality is that people are fleeing the city of Detroit. Let's show you the numbers because Detroit's population, over the last decade, fell 20 percent, but their schools saw 50 percent decline in enrollment. And what this is, and parents across Detroit tell me, they're picking up their kids, taking them to the suburbs, they don't trust the Detroit public schools. They don't want their kids in them anymore.

ROMANS: They're sending them to private schools and some magnet and some charter schools, too.

HARLOW: Public schools in the suburbs. But every time you take a kid out of a Detroit public school, the system loses about $7,600, so it's a vicious cycle. And when you look at the man trying to fix it, his name is Robert Bobb, he's the emergency financial manager, put in charge of fixing a massive budget gap, which is $327 million. But if you look at these statistics of what he says is going to happen, it's astonishing.

He says, all right, this is the only way to close that gap, so we're going to have to close 70 more schools in Detroit. That will leave only 72 public schools open by 2014.

And to give you some perspective, folks, they closed 59 public schools last year. So, they're whittling these down by the dozens. That would mean 60 kids per high school class.

ROMANS: So, Detroit's problems are Detroit's problems. And then you look at Wisconsin where the problems are completely different, but it is, at its core, a budget problem and a union problem. We teased Deb, coming into the segment, by saying a teacher and a corrections officer walk into protest, and if one doesn't do their job -- it's not a joke, if one doesn't do their job, the other one gets a new client.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, that 's exactly right. And you know what they're fighting for here, the unions want to be so vocal as that they simply don't lose the right to be able to bargain, be able get wages that are better, be able to get standards and conditions that are better. They feel in that's taken away from them, then they've got nothing. And these are dedicated professionals. They work for lower wages, for the most part, and they rely on things like their health care, their pensions, all that sort of adds up.

It's not to say they could find a job in the private sector, but what they want is they simply want a fair way so that they can continue being part of the middle class. Think about it, if you've got 60 kids in the classroom, OK? What does that mean for that one teacher? Why would you, as a teacher, want to be classroom with 60 children? You cannot teach, it doesn't make sense.

ROMANS: Earlier this week, a teacher said, I said, you know, a lot of the rhetoric is that teaching -- look it, if you look how America's doing on standardized tests, are teachers glorified baby- sitters? And she said I'd make much more money if I were a baby- sitter. And I think you know, I mean, I think that's probably true, but Bill Bennett would say there's five to 10 percent of students -- teachers who should not be in the classroom because they're ineffective and it's things like collective bargain that have allowed them to stay in the classroom.

FEYERICK: So the question is, if you have five to 10 percent who should be in the classroom, then you need to figure out a system that targets those five to 10 percent. You can change the system, you can look at the unions, you can say we need to revamp the unions, we need to revamp the way they bargain, but there are other issues on the table that are on the table and a lot of --


Tenure -- well exactly, not only that, but you know, the teachers and others, the nurses are saying, look, we did not create the mess that we're in. We did not -- we were not on Wall Street, we did not cause this housing crisis and now you're saying, look, the state comes in and I says, we don't have money, you got to get and you can't get upset. And they're saying, but they're going to get upset because you may want to pay us this, but we can't go into a grocery store and negotiate. We can't talk to our bank and a say, you know, I can't pay this much, but I'm willing to pay this much and they feel that's what the state is doing.

This story is just getting started, ladies and I have to tell you that when you're talking about teachers in a classroom, when you're talking about state budgets, it's something that effects every family, every community, every tax base.

Poppy Harlow, Debbie Feyerick, thank you so much.

We want to hear what you think of education where you live. What's working, what's not working, what's at stake? Send us an email to or find me on Facebook and on Twitter @ChristineRomans.

That's going to wrap things up for us this morning. Back now to CNN SATURDAY for other stories making news, right now.